Ancient viruses may hold key to gene therapy treatments

Illustration of a virus

Scientists have unlocked key insights into virus evolution, revealing new information that could help develop treatments for a wide variety of genetic diseases. 

The research focuses on a group of small, ubiquitous viruses called ‘parvoviruses’ (from the Latin word ‘parvus’ meaning ‘small’, ‘puny’ or ‘unimportant’). It was led by scientists at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) and University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. 

Many distinct types of parvoviruses infect mammals – including humans – without causing disease. Some have even been successfully harnessed as gene therapy vectors for the treatment of genetic diseases. 

In the study, researchers used ‘fossilised’ virus DNA sequences contained within animal genomes to reconstruct the long-term evolutionary history of parvoviruses. Their findings show how various distinct types of parvoviruses have evolved in mammals over millions of years, acquiring different specialised properties along the way.  

This knowledge positions scientists to take instruction from nature in the development of improved gene therapies – for example, the propensity of different parvovirus types to infect different organ systems could be harnessed to target these therapies more effectively. 

Dr Rob Gifford, an evolutionary biologist who led the research at the CVR, said: “This study reveals exciting insights into the long-term evolutionary history of an important virus group. Parvovirus gene therapy is a cutting-edge biomedical technology. Our findings suggest that studying the natural biology and evolutionary history of parvoviruses can inform the rational design of vectors for safer and more effective gene therapies.” 

The paper, ‘Comparative analysis reveals the long-term co-evolutionary history of parvoviruses and vertebrates’ was published in PLOS Biology. The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 


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