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Genetics and the War on Viruses

I spent a year working in a vaccine research laboratory at the Mayo Clinic. My project involved analyzing the DNA of military personnel who had died of the measles in the early 20th century. Strangely enough, the military saved small pieces of their flesh embedded in paraffin wax (and frozen) for future study. I guess that “future study” was my research project.

I must admit that I felt a little bit creepy as I cut tiny slivers of tissue out of the waxy fossils. I wondered about the lives of the tissue’s original owners. Who were these soldiers? Did their families still think of them? Did they leave wives and children behind?

Well, as it turned out, most of the tissue samples had a little piece of DNA in common and it was pretty exciting to discover what may have been a genetic susceptibility to this particular virus. Figuring out why some people survive the measles while others are overcome and die from it can be the turning point in understanding how to protect future generations from its ravages.

Today I read about some new research linking susceptibility to the influenza virus to certain family lineages. This makes perfect sense, since our body’s ability to defend itself against disease is largely based on our genetic code. However, we’re only just beginning to unwrap the subtle role of each piece of DNA code in our immune function. The complex interactions of microscopic proteins and chemicals in our bodies is much more difficult to interpret and predict than we can even fathom. Nonetheless, it’s really exciting that we’re inching closer to being able to protect ourselves from scary viruses. We’ve won a few battles, but haven’t yet won the war.

And on another front, some researchers are working on modifying the ebola virus so as to render it harmless to humans. I’m not sure I’d want to sign up for THAT research project, frankly. I have a lot of respect for those who work in labs with such risky pathogens – but let’s just say I wouldn’t want to invite those folks out for a beer.

Let’s keep an eye on scientific discoveries in the field of virology. With the bird flu and other threats looming on the horizon, our lives may one day depend on it!This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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One Response to “Genetics and the War on Viruses”

  1. Amka says:

    My major in college was molecular biology and genetics.  The career I was going for then was to study viruses for use in gene therapy. At the time my husband’s employment pulled us out of the area, I was considering switching to physics. Though I never finished it, I’m still fascenated at how our body works on a molecular level. 

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