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Evolution accelerated for gene therapy

Scientists at UC Berkeley have accelerated evolutionary development of a common, but largely harmless, virus in humans in hopes that these designer organisms could help provide gene therapy.

The adeno-associated virus, or AAV, contains two genes and is found in about 90 percent of the population. Although largely benign to humans, antibodies inside our bodies recognize the capsid protein shell of the virus and quickly throttle it. David Schaffer, associate professor of chemical engineering, along with Narendra Maheshri, James T. Koerber and Brian Kaspar, directed the process of genetic mutations. In two generations of accelerated evolution, requiring about two months of lab work, they succeeded in coming up with a virus that could survive human antibodies.

Eventually, these more durable microbes could be used to carry therapeutic genetic material to cells.

Though Schaffer acknowledged that the technique could be used to help pathogenic viruses evade the human immune system, potentially making them more virulent, other techniques already allow this frightening possibility, he added.