Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Viral Marketing

Well, no surprises for me in the election, which frankly makes me sad, actually. I am predicting that the Libs will have a new leader by November 2009 (if not sooner) and will force another election 18 months or so thereafter. Not really Dion's fault, but he didn't help himself much. It was very telling that the separatist leader Gilles Duceppe is significantly more comfortable in English than the Liberal PM hopeful.

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I wanted to speak briefly about the Nobel Prizes this year, or at least those in medicine and chemistry - I don't know enough about physics to even begin to comment on that work. And of course, the Nobel Prize in economics is really the Swedish Central Bank Prize in memory of Alfred Nobel, because economics isn't so much a science as it is a crapshoot.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a number of people (details here) for work on viruses, two of them for the discovery of the HIV virus. It was a little shameful that a certain other party didn't get some credit, but the Nobel can only be given to 3 people, and he doesn't seem as broken up about it as it might be.

What you probably don't know about the HIV virus is how it blew away the biology community when they discovered how it worked. It is literally capable of taking its own genetic information and downloading it into the hard drive of your genome. Then your own cells start manufacturing the virus and it spreads. It uses a special enzyme for this, known as reverse transcriptase, which itself allowed the development of a process called RT-PCR, one of the most important tools in the field molecular biology.

Now, AIDS and other retrovirally-transmitted diseases are important enough on their own to merit consideration for a Nobel, but an important development in recent years has made the discovery even more important. Since this virus can insert genetic material, scientists wondered if they could use the virus as a tool to put genes into mammalian cells.

I wouldn't be talking about this if it was unsuccessful. The virus has been extensively genetically engineered to be able to carry genetic payloads into cells that it can infect, without replicating new virus and harming the host. Today, I myself use a heavily modified version of the AIDS virus to insert genes into rat brain cells and perform experiments looking at how certain genes affect the expression of other genes.

The importance in this case wasn't just the discovery of the viral agents, or showing that these agents caused much more serious diseases. These things were vital contributions to medicine. This discovery went on to reverberate through the field of biology and changed the way we do experiments and perform the science. There are few nobler things that could have been honoured.

Soon - the chemistry Nobel, another (related) paradigm-shifter.

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