Week in Review: May 22

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Using bioengineered viruses to fight HIV, find a fossil—have a cow, Jon Huntsman on the slow boat to China, and Hubble and the space shuttle enter their dying days.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

Has Biotech Beaten HIV?

The first vaccine to utilize recombinant DNA technology was the hepatitis B vaccine conceived by Maurice Hilleman of Merck, and developed when Hilleman and his colleagues combined the genetic code for hepatitis B surface protein with the DNA of brewer’s yeast colonies. Genetic engineering may now hold the key to another of humanity’s most fearsome parasites: the human immunodeficiency virus. Vaccines developed to protect against HIV are notoriously unsuccessful, but a paper published online May 17 in Nature Medicine marks a breakthrough in the search for an HIV vaccine. The results won’t have a clinical impact any time soon—the study was done on rhesus macaques and the simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV—but their implications far surpass those of the bone-marrow transplant that cured a man of HIV last year.

In the new work, a team of investigators led by Philip R. Johnson of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia engineered a virus to express a number of proteins with specific activity against SIV; in all, they developed three vaccine-viruses, each expressing a subset of the SIV-specific proteins. They then injected the engineered viruses into the muscles of three sets of three rhesus macaques. For four weeks the muscle tissue, its machinery co-opted by the vaccine, produced the SIV-specific antibodies encoded in the vaccine-viruses. After that period, the nine inoculated monkeys, as well as six unvaccinated monkeys, were exposed by injection to a virulent form of SIV. Of the unvaccinated monkeys, four of six developed AIDS and were euthanized. Of the vaccinated monkeys, only three contracted SIV, and even those that did survived a year (the length of the study) after being exposed. That is, none developed AIDS. The vaccines protected them.

So, do we have a cure for HIV? Not yet. For one thing, as Johnson and his team point out in the paper, most people contract HIV over mucous membranes, and not intravenously, so further studies are needed to find whether the vaccines would protect the monkeys against SIV infection during sexual activity. For another, the study was small, will need to be replicated, and will of course need to be replicated in humans. But the news is enormously encouraging. And it’s something for the anti-vaccinationists and radical opponents of animal research and genetic engineering to keep in mind before unleashing their next round of lawsuits or protests or violence: Stay your hand, and the life you save might be your own.

If I’d Been There, Ida Had a Cow, Too

World media went haywire with a story of such apparent importance that even Google changed its logo for the occasion. Somehow, “Ida,” a fossil of an animal named Darwinius masillaethat may or may not settle some questions about early haplorhines (the group that includes all tarsiers, monkeys, and apes)became the sine qua non for our understanding of the evolution of ourselves. This despite the fact that many paleontologists remain unconvinced that it even is a haplorhine. D. masillae is very interesting—most fossils do not survive so well as this one, and it does share characteristics of both the more “primitive” strepsirrhines such as lemurs and haplorhines. Whatever Ida is, it is not a missing link, not a missing proof of evolution. It may well be proof, however, of what a well-conceived press strategy can accomplish in a slow news week.

Hunting for a Climate Solution

The news that President Obama was appointing Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as his ambassador to China was greeted with general good cheer: Huntsman is a former US ambassador to Singapore, a fluent speaker of Mandarin (even if—gasp! go the leaders of the People’s Republic—he learned it in Taiwan), and is by all accounts one of the most forward-looking Republicans in the land.

So congratulations to Governor Huntsman, and good luck to him. But perhaps bad luck for the rest of us, at least those of us who hope that climate change might become a less political issue in the United States. Governor Huntsman has been instrumental in the ongoing development of the Western Climate Initiative, a group of seven US states and four Canadian provinces aiming to set up a cap-and-trade scheme to control carbon emissions in North America. His successor, Gary Herbert, promised on May 19 to continue the policies of the Huntsman administration, including involvement in the Western Climate Initiative, but only after his chief of staff Joe Demma told the Salt Lake Tribune a few days earlier that “global warming needs to be realized before anyone talks about it; the science is not all there. Gary Herbert puts question marks on things that the governor has put periods on.” Only time will tell whether Herbert or his chief of staff knows Herbert best.

But Huntsman’s arrival in China could have an interesting effect on climate negotiations in the run-up to this December’s Copenhagen conference. As Peter Dizikes recently argued on SEEDMAGAZINE.COM, progress on carbon emissions on a global scale largely comes down to whether the US and China can agree on a course of action. Ambassador Huntsman as the front man in Beijing could be exactly what the Obama administration needs to get the Chinese government to make a deal that can balance its country’s ongoing development with everyone’s need for a stable climate. It goes without saying that the ambassador to China will have more fish to fry than just convincing China to help solve climate change—but it’s still a pretty big fish. Hats off to the Obama administration if they saw it that way.

Stunt Flying

The last planned mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope was due to end either today or tomorrow, weather permitting, with the return of the space shuttle Atlantis to Earth. The servicing itself was a success, adding five more years to the operational life of the telescope, as well as a device called the Soft-Capture Mechanism. That piece of hardware is, in effect, a poison pill; it will allow a future robotic spacecraft to dock with the telescope in order to safely de-orbit it, whereupon Hubble will burn up in our planet’s atmosphere.

The mission didn’t mark just the beginning of the end for Hubble, however; the space shuttle, despite the efforts of some congressmen to keep it going for the next few years, is nearly finished too (the latest indication being that NASA has closed the facility that makes the shuttles’ external fuel tanks). And in Washington, President Obama has a review board discussing the future of manned space flight at NASA, noticeably without the NASA administrator at the table—because there isn’t one yet. It seems unlikely that manned space flight is going away: There’s always the International Space Station to see, and European Space Agency, having just chosen some astronauts, seems like it might want to pay a visit. But now would be a good time for NASA to reconsider, yet again, just what it’s doing by sending people a few hundred miles away to orbit Earth. The answer still seems to be: not a lot. True, Hubble has lasted so long because people could visit it. But, for space-based science experiments, Hubble is exceptional. Most of the rest—Kepler, Planck, Herschel, the James Webb Space Telescope, and more—are so far from Earth that no one can visit them to repair them, at least not with present technology.

The fact is, we don’t seem to need astronauts in order to do amazing space science. And what we do need them for—such as testing machines that purify their own urine—doesn’t seem that interesting at all. (And even if that kind of recycling capacity could be useful on Earth, it’s not at all clear why we need people in orbit to build it.)

The story’s just going to get worse for Earthlings in space. Yes, perhaps we could go to Mars, and certainly there are people willing to do it. But the most interesting questions and biggest answers lie far away, whether on Europa or Enceladus, or even, as Seed’s Lee Billings has described, around Alpha Centauri or points even more distant. Getting there necessarily will involve little robots traveling at high speeds. And it will not necessarily involve putting people in space suits, even as it will require the efforts of thousands here on Earth. It’s time to stop spending money on orbital stunts like the ISS. They’re not about exploring the cosmos. They’re about impressing ourselves.

Originally published May 22, 2009

Tags climate genetics research space technology

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