A fascinating article in Wired documents the search for a broad-based attack against viruses.
Virologists, in other words, are still waiting for their Penicillin Moment. But they might not have to wait forever. Buoyed by advances in molecular biology, a handful of researchers in labs around the US and Canada are homing in on strategies that could eliminate not just individual viruses but any virus, wiping out viral infections with the same wide-spectrum efficiency that penicillin and Cipro bring to the fight against bacteria. If these scientists succeed, future generations may struggle to imagine a time when we were at the mercy of viruses, just as we struggle to imagine a time before antibiotics.
But will there be drawbacks to success? Just like antibiotics killed bacteria indiscriminately — good and bad bacteria both — might we be killing off beneficial viruses too?
Our bodies are rife not just with bacteria but with viruses too. Even when weâre perfectly healthy, we have trillions of viruses inside of us. Scientists are only beginning to survey this viral ecology, but some suspect that it may actually be essential to our health. Many animals depend on viruses. Aphids, for example, need a virus that makes a toxin that prevents wasps from laying eggs inside their bodies. Scientists have found that infecting mice with lymphotrophic viruses protects them from developing diabetes. Other viruses attack cancer cells.
We may have such beneficial viruses inside our own bodies as well, waiting to be discovered. These viruses may not even infect our own cells but could instead be inside the bacteria that colonize us. Some species might keep the populations of their microbial hosts in check, like predators thinning a herd. Some viruses merge with bacteria rather than killing them, providing their hosts with useful genes for feeding or fighting off competitors. All of these microbe-infecting viruses may ultimately help us stay healthy.
Ten years from now, will we be referring to good viruses and bad viruses? Probably.
File this under “very poorly understood aspects of health”. Here’s the full article.