Deadly Virus Combination May Help Cystic Fibrosis Patients

PHILADELPHIA-Pieces of the Ebola virus, along with HIV, have been combined to create a new hybrid virus scientists hope will one day cure cystic fibrosis.

Researchers from Penn's Institute for Human Gene Therapy are combining the two killer viruses in hopes of finding a hybrid that will take key components from both and create a powerful treatment for cystic fibrosis patients. The goal is to take Ebola's unusual talent for attaching to lung cells and the AIDS virus's ability to persist in the body, then add curative genes and spray the virus into patients' lungs.

The viruses are not in their complete form and should not infect a patient using the treatment. Instead, the scientists have taken the viruses apart and are using crucial pieces to create the cure.

However, Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore and co-discoverer of HIV says it is possible that the new virus could prompt an immunological response.

"I wouldn't want this thing put into me," he says.

James Wilson, the director of the Penn Institute, has led several controversial gene projects. The institute, under Wilson's leadership, has focused on new gene delivery methods since the FDA ordered it last year to halt all human clinical studies after a young gene therapy patient died.

While working on the cystic fibrosis project, team members combined the specific genes that allow Ebola to attach to lung cells, those that help HIV infect and persist inside cells, and marker genes that enable researchers track their new creation. When squirted into the windpipes of mice, the viruses infected the animals' lungs and delivered the marker genes.

However, many questions remain. Will the treatment be effective in cystic fibrosis patients who typically have excess mucus in their lungs? Will a patient's immune system fight the virus? Could the new virus disrupt genes inside lung cells, causing cancer and other problems?

The project is far from human testing stages, but cystic fibrosis patients are hopeful.

"It's quite a way from being useful," says Melissa Ashlock of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Bethesda. "But it's definitely a step forward in a field that has not had many forward steps."

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