One reason why the World will not fail this time -Gene therapy is one step closer to reality!!

Stuck between social fatigue and damning dismay, a restless world waits out the pandemic, leaning an overwhelmed healthcare system. With virus more likely to reactivate rather than re-infect, any anti science attitude will only push the nail harder and hurt deep.

It suddenly leaped to my face and hissed; “You will never be able to get rid of me… I will see to it that you rot in pain and die a horrifying death all alone … you scum”!!… The spines all over its body looked familiar. I peered closely and drew in sharply….the shiny spines looked more like okra pods split in half and stuck all over the body. it

My heart was pounding hard and I noticed I had broken into a cold sweat. “It’s just a dream”. “Its over now, everything is just fine. A new swanky day like so many, is here. Life is sweet as ever”; I could hear myself saying over and over again to nobody.

Last night I had slept alone and had nightmares.

And then it hit me hard “The nightmare is far from over. We are still fighting. The battle of sorts is still being waged”.

Dismayed like millions around me, I feared for myself and I feared for the world around me. I felt sorry for those who lost the battle not knowing what hit them and died a lonesome death.

Is it that fearsome? Is the life as we know it really going to change?

Curiosity got better of me and I thought I ought to look around and see what is there to know

Mystery surrounding viruses has more than meets the eye.

To begin with I searched around to know what a virus is, how it looks like, how it behaves and why all hell has suddenly broken loose across the globe.

Current science describes a virus as a nucleic acid molecule wrapped in a protein layer. It is potentially infectious, too small to be visible even by a light microscope, lies dormant and comes to life and multiplies dramatically only within the living cell of a host.

Nucleic acid is Nature’s one most unique life form and the primary building block to engineer what we know as ‘ Virus’. These are essentially large bio molecules inseparably vital to all living things, are chain like and are composed of a series of nearly identical building blocks called nucleotide. Cut things short, nucleic acid is the overall name for DNA and RNA.

Viruses are the most abundant biological entity on this planet and are whoppingly enormous in numbers; roughly 100 million virus to match every cell in our body. However because of their extremely small size, the mass tied up in these viruses is no more than 5% of the entire prokaryotic biomass on the planet. Also, because of their enormous presence almost 20% of the bacterial mass in the Oceans is infected by viruses every day.

Prokaryos as we know are unicellular organisms that lack organs or any membrane bound structures, do not have a nucleus but a single chromosome with a piece of circular double stranded DNA, all tied up and placed within an area of the cell called nucleoli.

CoVID-19 the most recent of the corona virus family was largely unknown, till the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and turned pandemic wreaking economies and terminating more than a million lives across the globe.

What size fits corona virus

Quite a bit. A comparison between more common and well understood viruses

With a diameter of 22 nano meters, the measles virus is 8 times smaller than E coli bacteria, at 45 nm hepatitis virus is 40 times smaller and the polio virus is 30 nm across, let’s say about 10000 times smaller than a grain of salt. Actually it’s the size difference between the bacteria and virus that gave the first clue that the viruses did exist.

Particles of corona viruses (also known as ‘virion’) are spherical in shape and between 60 nm and 140 nm in diameter, averaging about 124 nm. This means that corona virus is smaller than PM 2.5, but larger than some dust and gas particles.

How it breached our defenses

We all know for sure that the virus escaped animals and reached the humans How ? ..Nobody knows for sure.

A strain of corona virus similar to SARS-CoV-2 -the cause of CoVID-19 and the one that is infecting humans- has been traced back to the Malayan ‘Pangolin’ population of Southern China, though the role of pangolins as intermediate host or the evolutionary pathway by which this virus traveled to humans, is still unclear. Wet markets meanwhile are a major source of concern as zoonotic transmission to humans has not been ruled out.

Why some of us are hit harder than others

Excepting those with history of co morbidity- one that accounts for severity of complication and fatality- many of us though afflicted, may never get sick or experience the symptoms. Is it possible that genetics could be influencing the severity of symptoms? 

We know for sure that tiny variations in genome sequencing in humans alters a person’s chance of contracting infection. These variations decide how our immune system would respond once the virus has lodged itself in our body. In few fatal cases one probable reason was found to be the onset of an immune response called ‘cytokine storm’ in the body; a surge of self-destructive cytokine molecules in the DNA, that occurs the moment it detects the virus. This disrupts the cell metabolism with fatal consequences.

Is Gene Therapy the answer to all our ills?

If you ask all probability-Yes. An alternate to build upon within chaos is always a good bargain.

Here’s why .

Gene therapy is meant to introduce genetic material into cells, if abnormal genes are detected or beneficial protein is lacking. A normal copy of the gene is required to be introduced for restoring the function of the protein-the organic molecules found within every living organism .Made up of chain of amino acids, proteins serve various body functions like structure, transport and more particularly Defense. Some specific examples of these proteins are collagen, insulin and antibodies.

A gene once inserted does not function of its own but a carrier (generally called’ vector’) works as a delivery agent and transports the gene to the targeted cell. What is surprising is that certain viruses also work as carrier because they can deliver customized genes – one which do not carry any disease- to cell except what they are programmed to carry. One such type of virus called ‘retrovirus’ integrates it’s genetic material including the new gene to the chromosome in human cell. Yet another type known as ‘adenovirus’ introduces its DNA only into the cell. This DNA is not integrated into a chromosome, leaving it to the cell to decipher and combine of its own.

How the therapy may work

Theoretically at least for now.. we presume that it will work though extent of success is still uncertain and open to debate.

One way this therapy could work is to directly inject the vector carrying modified gene from where it will travel to individual cell. Yet another one is to expose the patient’s cell to this modified gene carrying vector and then return it back to the body. If everything goes well, this new gene will generate functional protein and in turn guard the body from infection to severe infection. However, transporting a gene to a particular cell and its controlled functioning once inside, is a challenge sans answers till this day. Also, since clinical presentation of the infection varies from person to person, same therapy may not be the right answer for infections across the board.

The success of this therapy rests largely on identifying genes that precede the infection. If we could isolate the gene that makes some people resistant and harness it, return to normalcy could be a strong possibility. The unfortunate part is that gene therapy is in exploratory stage and is yet to make a distinct headway. Till such time the genetic susceptibility of a person to the virus , is identified and fully understood, select few antivirals such as ‘Remdesivir’ ,‘Dexamethasone’ and ‘Flavipiravir’ will continue to be the most promising and perhaps our only cudgel in fight against the virus for now.

Are we headed into a break from Covid-19 any time sooner?

It’s not just mass deaths alone although that is awful. The crisis has turned into something more bizarre and intriguing. it has changed the World as we had known into a failed society of sorts sealing the fate of poor, humbling the economies and spreading political chaos and social dismay like never before.

And -the end is not in sight as yet

Recent studies have indicated that corona virus has mutated and significantly improved its ability to infect cells. This explains why early outbreaks did not overwhelm the health care systems as much as the infections that ravaged the EU countries and US later on. This mutation-also referred to as D614G -has increased the number of ‘spikes’ on the corona virus which allows it to bind to and infect the cells more efficiently. The number of these spikes has risen by 4–5 times , though it is still not known if this could be linked to severity of infection or increased mortality. Though it was known all along that SARSCoV-2 was evolving into new and more potent strains, what is alarming is that this strain is the result of a dominant mutation, one that is capable of more severe symptoms. 

One thing is certain though. The virus is capable of jumping specie boundaries and adapting to new host per se. Predictably more of its cousins could emerge and invade us humans in future. It is how we react now, will decide if we could ward off a still severe health danger to humans from future corona viruses.

Because courage counts!!

Contact tracing, confinement in isolation, pills with unproven effect and virtual social separation; this has become one hell of a way to wage battle with an enemy that takes its toll at a frightening pace.

Even those who enthuse that we will have a vaccine in the next one year or so, also admit grudgingly that nothing is certain.

But wait!!…..don’t loose heart. its not human like. We are a specie not designed for a defeat. Trust me Nature has its own way of evolving and revealing it’s secrets. But it bides its time. Who knows what surprises lie ahead for us? We may find favor with gene therapy well in time and come out with a vaccine that puts an end to threat of a global annihilation.

So, if we now condemn ourselves to a worst case scenario where people genuinely don’t care if they or anyone else lives or dies, we could well be talking of a guaranteed catastrophe that may take years altogether before it is overwhelmed.

Let’s hold hands , stand together and not push things hard. It’s time to lie easy, protect ourselves, follow ground rules and hope that the answersdo not take long to be discovered . Whatever we do., let’s promise ourselves not to give up. With a tad more luck we could shore up our genetic therapy techniques and strong enough to bull whip the menace.

If its any relief and makes you feel restored, just remember-this world is not built to fail!!


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