Thursday 19 September 2013

Big Cat, deadly viruses

I'm a bit of a celeb-groupie and have thrown my underwear on the stage at a good few scientific meetings.  Although I'm not sure what the famous scientists make of, or do with, my capacious boxers. Readers aside "What is it with yer man Bob's obsession with underwear, could he not keep it in his trousers?".  I wrote about how James Lovelock may have remembered me at a book signing in Dublin a few years back.  I left Boston 30 years ago this month to take up my first teaching position in a British University.  Six weeks later Stephen J. O'Brien came to visit my Gaffer because they (and indeed we) had a very strong interest in the genetics of cats big and small.  So I missed that meeting.

Last night I was able to catch up because O'Brien was in the Royal Irish Academy talking about his life's work.  Strictly, he was talking about some fragments of his life's work because we didn't have a two day symposium to hear about the whole 750 paper (so far) opus.  But those fragments were woven into a compelling story that started with inbreeding in Cheetahs Acinonyx jubatus and reflecting on how this reduction in genetic diversity laid them open to attack by pathogens.  The case study was a devastating epidemic of Feline Immune-deficiency Virus (FIV) at a wild-life park in Oregon. From there we went on a romp solemn funeral procession through the Black Death, Plague, Smallpox, SARS and HIV, tallying up the thousands and millions of people who have succumbed to infection down the years. O'Brien's group made a crucial contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS in identifying a mutation in the CCR5 receptor (CD195) which blocks the invasion of T-cells by the virus HIV.  If you have two copies of this gene variant, you will have considerable resistance to attack by this virus.  

You can find out whether you have that resistant status by sending $100 to 23andme in California.  Their genetic analysis will not only tell you whether you have a touch of the tar brush in your ancestry but will lay out your details for numerous medically relevant gene variants including CCR5-delta32.  But before you go off to celebrate your delta32-homozygosity with a spree of unprotected sex in sub-Saharan Africa, you should reflect on what reg'lar CCR5 is doing on the surface of T-cells.  It turns out that, among other things, two copies of the delta32 mutation lays you wide open to infection by West Nile Virus.  Indeed, as WNV has spread globally (thanks to those Bs Boeing, British Airways and Budget Travel), you can't safely go on your sex-spree aNNywhere. Dang!

That was an evening well spent and tribs to my pal Emma Teeling from UCD's Earth Institute for making it happen.  She worked with O'Brien, on SARS and other things, for three years when he has a Big Cat in NIH.  It's just wonderful that international networking can pay such dividends for the education of the Plain People of Ireland.  And this was the first in a series of talks to launch the new meta-Department, mega-School, so that's a lot to look forward to

But enough already about saving millions of lives in sub-Saharan Africa, what about ME?  After the talk I sidled over to the Honored Guest and introduced myself.  I could see that he was, with punctilious politeness, only half-listening to my story of having missed meeting him a generation earlier when suddenly he twigged the connexion between me and my Gaffer in Boston and lit up.  He said some blushingly complementary things about the tuthree papers we'd written on the population genetics of domestic cats back in another place and another time. So that was an evening really well spent.

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