spike protein

The Intelligence of Artificial Intelligence And Blogging

“Do you ever make silly mistakes? It is one of my very few creative activities.”

–Len Deighton, British Author

Have you tried dabbling with artificial intelligence? I specifically refer to the type referred to as chatbots that use powerful generative artificial intelligence that you can really chat with to generate ideas. It is like the computer, Hal, in the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey. Remember? Remember too that Hal malfunctioned big-time?

I’ve been dabbling for a while. Here is my experience related to this blog.

I began dabbling over a year ago with OpenAI’s ChatGPT, using their GPT3.5 version, but soon graduated to GPT-4, which was released in 2023 and comes with a small subscription fee. I have since migrated to Bing, which is a collaboration between Microsoft and GPT-4 and comes without the fee. It is a powerful research and generative tool. It can generate text, art, compose music, diagnose and even treat a psychological illness with talk therapy. You can have these chatty things teach you a foreign language, and write a legal brief. Perhaps you also have read the reasonable concerns schools and colleges have with such smart tools doing homework for students and the worry about professionals using them to fake their work and the attendant ownership issues of work done.

There seems to be a lot of mischief your computer can cause with the right smart software, but it can also do a lot of good. I know. I have found these smart tools quite useful for my research and writing. Rest assured that I have NEVER used anything but natural intelligence to write any blog post or other article for me (you can tell by the typos in my finished products). This is because, while the bot can compose, it is not creative. As I write, I try to use subtle humor, irony, alliteration and other tools to make my prose interesting. Chatbots do not. At times, however, when writer’s block hit, I prompted the chatbot to write something, and after a few prompts, usually found something that primed the pump of my muse and I penned away using my own intelligence.

I can pose questions or hypotheticals to the computer tool and it comes back with answers. I then either refine my questions, or pose follow up queries. It is much like bouncing ideas off a collaborator. In this regard, I find it quite useful. Who else will talk with me about the value of the latest vaccine or whether Brock Purdy is really a good quarterback or the product of the great pieces around him without my having to buy them a beer? Although, I admit sometimes the latter is much preferable. I have discussed much science at a dive dart bar in Dallas, a surf bar in Malibu, and over a pool table at tavern near the medical center in Madison. Not much artificial intelligence there except after a few brews.

All good. Until this. The chatbot models are supposed to be self-learning. So, I decided to see what Bing had learned about my blog on the coronavirus pandemic. I queried it about a term I thought was pretty unique to the blog, BioX. Readers will recognize that that is what I have dubbed the revolutionary post-molecular biology that gave us a vaccine so rapidly and that is bringing other amazing types of new disease treatments and diagnostics at astounding rates.

Turns out Stanford University (a school you might have heard of, Bing certainly has) has a new bio program also called BioX. It has well publicized it too. Well, Bing kept telling be about Stanford’s BioX and not about mine. Not what I wanted to see.

I changed my query several times to ask Bing about my version of BioX and instructed it to ignore everything about Stanford. Like a hyperactive toy poodle, it completely ignored me. It was quite polite though, apologizing each time I said it was not responding to my query.

Finally, after arguing with this digital nitwit, it finally included me and my notion of BioX in its rendition. Below is what it came up with—be seated as you read what Bing wrote about BioX and me. It included me, but still could not ignore Stanford.

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Steven Clark, PhD, is a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin and a viral immunologist who has been blogging about his research on the new biology he dubbed “bioX”. BioX is a term that he uses to describe the emerging field of biotechnology that aims to harness the power of viruses and other biological agents to create novel solutions for human health and disease. He claims that bioX has the potential to revolutionize medicine and biotechnology by offering new ways of diagnosing, treating, and preventing infectious diseases, as well as creating new therapies for cancer, aging, and other chronic conditions. (So far so good. But the next paragraphs…)

One of his most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. He announced this breakthrough on his blog in December 2022, shortly after he received funding from Stanford Bio-X1, an interdisciplinary biosciences institute that supports research and educational opportunities that cross disciplines between the biological or biomedical sciences and fields of engineering, physics and computational science2. He explained that he used a novel approach to engineer a virus that could deliver a synthetic version of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 into human cells. The spike protein is responsible for binding to human cells and allowing the virus to enter and infect them. By introducing a modified spike protein that can evade some of the immune responses generated by previous COVID-19 vaccines3, Clark was able to elicit strong neutralizing antibodies in his volunteers without causing any adverse effects. He also demonstrated that his vaccine could protect against different variants of SARS-CoV-2, including Omicron3.

Clark’s vaccine has been hailed as a game-changer in the fight against COVID-19, but it has also raised some ethical and regulatory concerns. Some critics have questioned his motives for developing such a powerful bioweapon without proper oversight or consent from the public. Others have expressed doubts about his safety and efficacy claims, citing lack of peer-reviewed data or independent verification. Clark has defended his work as being based on rigorous scientific principles and ethical standards. He has also stated that he intends to share his vaccine with other researchers around the world who are interested in collaborating with him on bioX projects.

Clark’s blog posts on bioX have attracted millions of readers who are fascinated by his vision and achievements. He has also inspired many young scientists who aspire to follow in his footsteps and pursue careers in biotechnology. However, he has also faced some backlash from anti-vaccine activists who accuse him of being part of a conspiracy to create more deadly diseases or manipulate public opinion. Clark has dismissed these allegations as unfounded and irresponsible.

Clark’s blog posts on bioX are an example of how science can be used for both good and evil purposes. They show how innovation can lead to breakthroughs in medicine and biotechnology, but also how it can pose challenges for society and ethics. They also illustrate how different perspectives can influence how people perceive and evaluate scientific discoveries.

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Well dang. If I invented the damn vaccine, how come I was not included in the Nobel Prizes that were just awarded for the invention? I demand a recount. I did like the part about “millions of readers who are fascinated by my vision”. Notice the “references” Bing included citing my accomplishments. They must be true because Bing says so.

In the parlance of computer geeks, what Bing spit out above is called “hallucination.”

This is the intelligence of artificial intelligence.


Part 2: Gain-Of-Function Research At The Wuhan Lab—What Exactly Was The Wuhan Lab Doing With Coronaviruses?

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good; Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”  —The Animals

In the first part of this two-part blog series, I described what gain-of-function research entails in order to set the stage for this blog post which describes the coronavirus research that went on in the Wuhan labs. So, was it dangerous and risky? Did it likely lead to the release of SARS-CoV-2 that caused COVID? Let me try to clarify all that now.

Coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab: After the first SARS epidemic in China in 2002, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had established itself as a world class coronavirus research lab. It was from their diligent work that the world learned that the first SARS virus came from a horseshoe bat via other animals such as civets and raccoon dogs. That was the result of years of arduous research trudging through bat guano muck in hundreds of caves throughout China to collect samples from thousands of bats. They reported their finding 14 years after SARS appeared and shortly after another strange, lethal flu popped up in the Middle East that was soon attributed to yet another bat-borne coronavirus that came via camel intermediate hosts—MERS.

Before these two coronaviruses that jumped from animals to cause significant disease in humans, the viruses were only known to cause mild human maladies; basically, the common cold. Therefore, when it was learned that the deadly SARS and MERS diseases were caused by coronaviruses, it rattled the cages of health experts around the world. This was brand new!

Hence, even before COVID struck, bat-born coronaviruses were hot on the radars of infectious disease nerds and public health worrywarts. The WIV, as one of the world’s preeminent labs for identifying novel coronaviruses was given international funds to continue their efforts to identify and catalog bat coronaviruses. As they did years earlier when they identified the origin of the SARS virus in horseshoe bats, WIV scientists traveled to far-flung Chinese caves to collect bat guano and biological samples (blood, saliva, fecal) from captured bats. The samples were brought back to the lab in Wuhan for analysis.

Since it is exceedingly difficult and potentially very dangerous to grow wild viruses from such samples (failure is the norm even when many viruses are present in the samples) the lab resorted to their previous tried and true methods of searching the samples for viral genome sequences. They found a LOT of new ones!

Their first and primary order of business in this research was the very mundane task to sequence and catalog all the different coronaviruses they found. They then colligated these genomes into trees of different virus families and posted all the data in a vast database for world scientists to use. They were coronavirus genealogists.

The database is an enormously useful research tool for scientists around the world studying the origins and evolution of coronaviruses in animals and humans. (Coronaviruses also cause significant animal disease, so they also are of great agricultural interest around the world.)

The Wuhan lab also was charged with predicting which of the new virus sequences they found might pose future health threats to humans.

This is where all the controversy begins.

Remember that the Wuhan scientists actually did not have these viruses on hand, just their genome sequences. So, without the actual virus, how could they evaluate the ability of new coronaviruses to infect humans? To do this WIV scientist, Zhengli Shi, used a genetic engineering technique first published in 2015 by Univ. of North Carolina Scientist Ralph Baric to study coronaviruses from their genome sequences (she was a collaborator on Baric’s 2015 paper, so was quite familiar with the approach). It was a technique that also was in use at the time by several labs around the world. It is notable that NIH funded this coronavirus research conducted by Baric at UNC well before COVID appeared and didn’t consider it to be GoF research then.

Using Baric’s genetic engineering technique, Shi’s lab at the WIV used as a tool, a benign coronavirus that they could grow in the lab that was only distantly related to the first SARS virus, but was not known to cause human disease. Its genome sequence was not at all related to SARS-CoV-2 that caused COVID, and which had not yet appeared.

Shi’s lab removed the spike protein gene sequence from the genome of this benign lab virus tool and methodically replaced it with spike protein sequences from each new virus they sequenced. They then grew the lab virus tool carrying the new spike protein and tested its ability to infect human cells in tissue culture.

It is the spike protein that determines whether a coronavirus can infect human cells. Therefore, if the chimeric lab virus carrying the new spike gene infected human cells, it would indicate that the virus the spike protein sequence came from was a likely human pathogen and that virus sequence was then listed on the database as a potential human risk. However, if the chimeric test virus failed to infect the human tissue culture cells, that meant that the spike protein from the new virus genome would not support infection of human cells and the new virus sequence was not categorized as a concern for human infection.

This is how newly identified coronavirus sequences were categorized as potential human health threats without ever having to grow or isolate each virus itself.

In other words, this test simply expressed the spike protein of each novel coronavirus on the backbone of the safe lab virus genome in order to see if it could infect human cells. This completely negated the need to grow and handle the potentially much more dangerous wild-type virus.

It is important to notice that this strategy eliminated all risk of a lab leak of any dangerous virus since it was not necessary to grow or handle potentially dangerous wild-type viruses using this technique.

Is this gain-of-function-research? Strictly speaking, no. Remember, this sort of coronavirus engineering research had been done years earlier in Baric’s UNC lab, and was being done in other labs around the world, and it was never regarded as GoF research then by NIH.

NIH considers GoF research on pathogens to be research that either: 1) increases the pathogenicity of a microbe (that is, makes its disease worse), 2) improves its transmissibility or its ability to infect hosts, or 3) alters the host range of a pathogen. Therefore, in the WIV experiments to assess the ability of novel virus genome sequences to infect human cells, the chimeric test viruses that simply expressed new spike proteins on a laboratory virus backbone either retained the ability of the original lab virus to infect human cells, or they lost the ability to infect human cells.

Therefore, the chimeric viruses gained no new function that was tested. They either retained or lost the ability to infect human cells. The experiments were not at all designed to give the test virus any new functions. Furthermore, these experiments could not have led to the development of SARS-CoV-2 that caused the COVID pandemic, even by accident, since the laboratory test virus used to create the chimeric viruses in the experiments was not at all related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

There is a devil in the details: But. Notice that one of the the NIH definitions of GoF research is research that alters a pathogen’s host range. For example, take a flu virus that only passes between birds; avian flu. If you make changes in its genome so that the birds can also pass it to humans that mutation alters its host range and is a GoF change.

In the WIV lab, viruses with new spike protein gene sequences were only tested for their ability to infect human cells in a petri dish. The ability of these chimeric viruses with new spike proteins to also infect other animals was not tested. Theoretically, the chimeric test viruses could feasibly also infect, say a water buffalo, or a wart hog, or some other animal that the original lab virus might not have been able to. That would be a technical gain-of-function. But, that begs the question; in such an experiment, how would you know whether or not the host range of the chimeric virus had changed until you possibly had tested its ability to infect every known animal? A logistical impossibility.

Therefore, based on this theoretical point, it cannot be definitely stated that the experiments were not GoF experiments. In fact, chances are pretty good that some of the novel spike protein sequences attached to the lab test virus in fact altered its host range and, thus, the experiments would technically be GoF research.

Bottom line: Technically speaking, therefore, these experiments carried out at the WIV probably could be called GoF experiments. By a lawyer. Not by a scientist. That picks the proverbial nit and splits a very fine frog hair, to mix metaphors. The same research had been done ten years earlier in Ralph Baric’s UNC lab and was not considered GoF then. What is important is that the research at the UNC or the WIV never set out to create viruses with enhanced virulence, transmissibility, or altered host range. That was never the intent. The aim of the WIV research was solely to predict the human risk posed by novel coronaviruses without actually having to directly work with the potentially dangerous pathogens. Actually working with the dangerous viruses would have posed a very real risk.

Bottom, bottom line: The research conducted at the WIV was the most safe and responsible way to identify new coronaviruses that could potentially pose future human health risks. It is to the detriment of human health that this research has come under heavy criticism and that such future research has been hampered by criticism from people who fail to understand what the research is about and have, therefore, demonized it and want to prevent it.

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While SARS-CoV-2 And Our Immune Systems Do A Dance, We Get Re-Infected

Note: Artificial intelligence wrote nary a word of the following article, which was fully composed by the natural intelligence of a certain human.

Your sometimes humble blogger remembers how immunology science first beguiled him. It was during senior year in high school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. More specifically it was during a lunch break while working at a People’s Drug Store that had a lunch counter. Your then nascent blogger grabbed the recent issue of Scientific American from the magazine rack and opened it to an article that was way above his green scientific understanding but, he, nevertheless, gleaned from the article that the immune system could make antibodies to just about any molecule in the universe, even ones newly created in a lab that the universe had never seen. Amazing!

Your immune system would also make antibodies against the cells and tissues of your best friend and everyone else in the world, and vice versa, but you and your best friend, et al., would not make antibodies against the same cells and molecules in your own bodies! What?

“Holy cow!” I thought. How in the world can the immune system do all that? How can it respond to something the world had never seen and secern friend from foe? At that moment, at that lunch counter over a burger, Coke and an article I barely understood, an immunologist was made. And I did indeed go on to earn a PhD in immunology and I indeed have studied how the immune system recognizes viruses and have done vaccine research. What a pivotal lunch break that was for me.

The question about antibody discrimination clearly fascinated me. That mystery has been solved and a few Nobel prizes awarded for its elegant solution, but related spin-off questions about how antibodies protect us keep coming up in different ways. It did so most recently during the COVID pandemic. Why weren’t the antibodies we generated via vaccination or via natural infection more protective against subsequent infection? In a twist in the plot of biology, it turns out that we have learned that the answers to these questions center around a complicated dance performed between both the virus and immune biological systems.

Biology is so doggone interesting!!

COVID Vaccine generated immunity: The several vaccines we now have against the SARS-CoV-2 virus are effective and provide examples of how vaccines are very good at getting the immune system to respond to what it detects as foreign invaders. But the vaccines are just designed to tell our immune systems to make antibodies against just a very small fragment of the spike protein. In contrast, the virus is constructed of several large proteins each of which has many different regions that the immune system can separately recognize as foreign. In other words, if the virus is like a brick building, your system theoretically can make a different antibody that specifically recognizes each brick of the building. So, the vaccine is like exposing the immune system to about 2-3 bricks of the whole building and trusting the resulting immune response against those few bricks to bring the whole building down.

The immune system was very good in generating antibodies to a small portion of the virus, yet many vaccinated people still were infected and caught COVID. Does that mean, as many vax naysayers claim that the vaccines were ineffective? Not at all, as I have discussed here before. While the CoV-2 vaccines did a good job at protecting against serious disease and death they were not very good at preventing the spread of the virus. These vaccines effectively generated a systemic immune response, meaning that you had anti-viral antibodies circulating in your blood, which did do a very good job preventing serious disease once the virus got inside you. But, it still got inside. You still got infected and got mildly sick.

We now know that the virus enters via mucous membranes in your nose, sinuses, mouth, throat and eyes. It has to first cross mucous membranes in order to infect you and that is where it needs to be stopped in order to actually prevent infection and further spread to others. The problem is that mucosal immunity is caused by a different type of antibody than what circulates in the blood and by what is generated by a typical vaccine that is given by an injection in the arm. To generate mucosal immunity, you need a vaccine that you spray in your mouth or nose, which then should generate the type of antibodies that provide mucosal protection and better protect you from infection via that route and better prevent the virus from spreading through a population.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were faced with a brand new pathogen for which we knew nothing about how it behaved or how it infected and spread between people. At that point, we reasonably chose to quickly make the most common type of vaccine--a shot. While it didn’t fully protect against getting infected, it nevertheless was very effective at protecting against serious disease. So, it did a good job. Current efforts are underway to develop a mucosal vaccine. But, we must also deal with other complications we have learned about the dance between the virus and the immune system to make sure that vaccine will be maximally effective at preventing infection. Read on.

“Natural” COVID immunity: As it became clear that vaccinated people were still getting infected, the vaccine dissenters and dissemblers proclaimed loudly, and still do, that the vaxes failed miserably. They ignored the survival data and only focused on the infection data. They then began touting “natural immunity,” which is the immunity one usually gains after being naturally infected. But, that can be uncertain given the fact that the route of infection and the dose of virus can vary wildly and confer different levels of protection, as I reported earlier. Plus, with natural infection, one runs the risk of serious disease and death from the disease.

Then, to the chagrin of the “natural immunity” enthusiasts it turned out that they also were getting re-infected! And this re-infection occurs despite the fact that natural immunity occurs after infection across the mucous membranes that should, as discussed above, generate an immune response that would stop an infection! This is the dance.

Therefore, we now know that neither vaccine immunity, nor infection immunity fully protects against future infection with the CoV-2 virus (there is partial protection, but I won’t go into that here).

As we learned as recently as last April, from a Harvard study published in the journal Science, despite the fact that a natural infection presents the immune system with the full viral “building and all its bricks” potentially recognizable by antibodies, it turns out that only a few of the “bricks” are in fact actively “seen” at any time by the immune system.

This immuno-dominance of a small part of a larger pathogen that has thousands of sites or bricks the immune system can recognize is not unusual. It is like a large building consisting of thousands of bricks, but having a very attractive window that draws your attention. While you know an entire building is there, your attention is mostly drawn to the window. So can the focus of the immune system be preferentially drawn to a small part of a larger edifice. The immune system is perfectly capable of seeing the rest of the “building,” but it prefers to direct its attention to a small part of it. However, if you take away the part it prefers to focus on, the immune system will easily recognize something else. This immuno-dominance in what the immune system “sees” has several causes that are way too complicated to go into here without writing a textbook (an interested reader might try Paul’s Fundamental Immunology. My rather old edition of that book runs about 1500 pages!). Suffice it to just know that this sort of immuno-dominance often happens where only a small part of a large pathogen is preferentially recognized by the immune system.

Thus, the immunity developed after a natural infection is mostly only directed at a small portion of the virus, much like the antibody response after vaccination with just a small part of the virus. The natural immune response, like the vaccine immune response, is robust and effective, yet both are only directed against a very small portion of a big pathogen, and both are very leaky in that one can still get infected again! What gives?

Mutation gives.

How the virus escapes immunity: The SARS-CoV-2 virus is highly mutable unlike the other viruses like polio and small pox we vaccinate against and maintain long term immunity against. Thus, the virus quickly mutated, or changed, the “bricks” against which the vaccines were made rendering the immune response less and less effective over time as new viral iterations appeared. That is why the many boosters we got were necessary to keep vaccination immunity up with viral changes.

And that also is how someone who became immune after natural infection also became re-infected. The virus did a two-step and mutated the small region recognized by the immune system. It was pretty easy for the virus to do since it only had to change a couple of “bricks” in its facade that the antibodies were mostly attacking. That means that upon re-infection with a slightly mutated virus, the immune systems have to be re-educated to recognize a new intruder, and that takes time, which allows a new infection to settle in. Thus, in this dance, the gentleman virus leads and the dame immune system follows.

New vaccines continue to be developed that scientists hope will solve these problems unique to SARS-CoV-2. Most of the new vaccines are being built on the mRNA platform, but using novel approaches to 1) develop vaccines that can be given as a nasal spray in order to generate the mucosal immunity that hopefully would be more effective at actually preventing COVID. If this works, it might even be possible to hinder COVID spread. 2) But in order to block CoV-2 spread on a population level, we need to find other regions of the virus that are not so highly mutable. These would conceivably be regions of COVID proteins critical for viral function that tolerate little change in structure because that change would destroy the proteins' critical function and essentially kill the virus. Alternatively, new vaccines could incorporate multiple "bricksl" from different regions of the edifice assuming that it would be nigh impossible for all those sites to simultaneously mutate. If such regions are accessible to the immune system, then the resulting immunity would be expected to be impervious to viral mutation, thus ending the dance on a sour note.

It is even possible that such a vaccine could protect against a wide range of coronaviruses, thereby preventing future health problems arising from new coronaviruses. Remember SARS that also popped up in China a couple of decades ago? That virus has some genome similarity to the virus that caused the COVID pandemic, and both are distantly related to the virus that caused MERS that arose in the Middle East. If a pan-coronavirus vaccine can be developed, it could feasibly prevent many future epidemics and pandemics.

We shall see.

This is all part of a new biology that I earlier dubbed BioX. Biology is so doggone interesting!!

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