From Russia, with bugs

Scientists from the former Soviet Union's top-secret biological weapons lab join with Dallas researchers to fight a common enemy: the deadly Ebola virus

It seemed like such an innocuous idea to his new American scientific partners: take visiting Russian scientist Alexander Chepurnov out for dinner and a movie.

Some laboratory joker recommended that they take Chepurnov, head of a virology lab in Siberia, to see Mission: Impossible 2. When he settled into his seat in a Highland Park movie theater, expecting to see the latest American summer movie spectacular, he saw instead an eerie mirror image of his own life.

Within the first five minutes, Chepurnov watched, amused, as a Russian scientist working to create a genetically altered virus took what appeared to be a gene gun and shot himself in the arm with it.

Brian Stauffer
Russian scientist Alexander Chepurnov--in a borrowed lab coat--prepares to administer a genetic vaccine to a lab rat at UT Southwestern's Center for Biomedical Inventions. Chepurnov will return to Siberia's Vector lab to test the potential Ebola vaccine on guinea pigs.
Mark Graham
Russian scientist Alexander Chepurnov--in a borrowed lab coat--prepares to administer a genetic vaccine to a lab rat at UT Southwestern's Center for Biomedical Inventions. Chepurnov will return to Siberia's Vector lab to test the potential Ebola vaccine on guinea pigs.

Chepurnov smiles thinking about the movie--the character seemed so similar to himself, even down to the mustache.

So much so that his American colleagues squirmed uncomfortably beside him as the film's premise unfolded. The screenplay implies that this Russian was a key player in the Soviet biological-weapons program, collecting naturally occurring pathogens--"bugs"--and converting them into battlefield weapons.

Discussion after the film between Chepurnov and his American scientist counterparts focused on the feasibility of creating "chimera" viruses: viruses that have been genetically altered to take on various aspects of other viruses. HIV, for example, that is transmitted through the air like influenza.

There are few laboratories on earth designed specifically to create genetically altered viruses, but Chepurnov works at one of the biggest. He heads the Biosafety Level 4 virus laboratory at Russia's State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Siberia, commonly referred to in both countries as "Vector." Western experts and Soviet defectors say Vector once produced the same super-viruses that are the true villain of the movie.

Even though the Vector facility has been one of the few high points in the conversion of Russian virus labs to peaceful research, its name is still synonymous with the genetic experimentation that marked Russia's massive and clandestine biological-warfare program.

Russian scientists developed powerful ways to transmit anthrax, various forms of plague, and powerful strains, or "variants," of smallpox. Weapons for the battlefield--and for assassinating dissidents--were developed with gusto. Vector remains the largest virus storehouse in the world, with caches of smallpox, monkey pox, Marburg, Ebola, and different encephalitis strains. That unique expertise now makes the Russians an appealing vaccine research partner.

A year and a half ago, the U.S. government approached UT Southwestern Medical Center with the idea of forming a collaborative effort between Dallas and Siberia aimed at developing a vaccine against Ebola. The experiment was presented and paid for by the Department of Defense's radical research wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The U.S. Defense Department, in fact, is not only paying for the experiment, but now directly funds the operation of Vector in Russia as well. Through the distribution of grant money, the United States pays Chepurnov's salary whether he's in Siberia or Texas.

Ebola is a nasty virus, invading the host body by air and reducing a victim to a bloody, hemorrhaging mess within days. Outbreaks tend to burn out quickly because of its ferocity.

While the Ebola virus itself is rare in the industrialized world, making a vaccine's profit potential negligible, the experiment may pave the way for new research techniques in vaccinology. The most important point may be that experiments such as UT Southwestern's keep strapped Russian scientists from seeking work elsewhere: like North Korea or Iran.

Scientific projects, in fact, have become tools of foreign policy as well as advancement toward humanitarian and scientific ends. As skilled Russian scientists find themselves out of work, fears that they will find places in the labs of America's enemies are so profound that the U.S. government is funding the operation of the same labs--staffed with the same scientists, men like Chepurnov--that produced biological weapons.

Recent public fears about some vaccines notwithstanding, new advances in technology, the availability of public funds, and the increase in worldwide scientific collaboration have given scientists an opportunity to create new vaccines that break the mold.

Imagine a world where vaccine side effects are the exception, not the rule. Imagine a world that immunizes not through a needle, but through a nose spray or topical cream. Imagine a terrorist strike nullified by the quick administration of a shot that boosts your innate immune system to astronomical levels. Imagine boosters taken like vitamins.

In the ultimate swords-to-plowshares scenario, advances in the tools of bioweaponeering are being used to advance vaccinology. Vaccines are on the verge of a scientific--and hopefully an industry--boom. And some scientists at UT Southwestern are busy positioning themselves to capitalize on it.

The away team in this round of experiments is the Russians of Vector. The home team is the hired brains of UT Southwestern's Center for Biomedical Inventions (CBI).

Walking through the CBI labs can boost your IQ. It's the kind of place where staff members use the word "symmetrical" while giving directions to the bathroom.

Each room of CBI seems stocked with street-dressed geeks running computer programs or staring at test tubes. Homemade machines do specialized tasks; one of the coolest things about CBI is that its engineers will create any gizmo needed to conduct experiments, gizmos that just may become standard laboratory equipment for future geneticists.

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