Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

New vaccines I: Synthetic biology and the fight against pathogens

Raleigh 2012 - Monday morning 8:30 Parallel Sessions

Virologist Ralph Baric says future pandemics will be stopped by vaccines engineered to mount a broad defense against pathogens, drawing on genetic information from large phylogenetic pools. He believes the controversy stirred by recent experiments on the H5N1 influenza virus will not be an isolated one. “Basically almost every microbial life form is going to be manipulatable at the genome level within a decade or so,” says Baric.

“It’s not just H5N1, or SARS, it’s large numbers of pathogens, both viral and bacterial. It’s here, whether we like it or not.” Baric can engineer viruslike particles that inoculate against whole swaths of virus variants, effectively anticipating the changes that take place in a pathogenic virus’s surface coat as it targets different populations. Synthetic biology and “omics” tools will allow virologists to quickly mount a broad response to stop a pandemic, he says. He is working to get protections against respiratory pathogens where they’re needed, but advocates great care in the regulation and use of these new biotools.