Sequencing study suggests new means of controlling ASF

Research into the basic functions of the African swine fever virus advances progress toward a vaccine.

Brian Hoskins |

Research into the basic functions of the virus uncovers potential to control African swine fever through antivirals.

Researchers looking to understand the basic means by which the African swine fever (ASF) virus functions say their work lays the groundwork for means of controlling ASF through either a vaccine or, possibly, antiviral compounds that could be added to animal feed.

In a new paper for the Journal of Virology, scientists from The Pirbright Institute and University College London (UCL) detail each of the 150-190 genes expressed by the ASF virus, as well as the order in which these genes are activated during an infection with the disease.

The research demonstrates that ASF changes the genes it expresses over time. In the early stages of the infection, genes intended to evade the host’s immune system are most active. Later, the virus “turns on” genes involved in creating new virus particles.

The sheer number of genes expressed by ASF has made it difficult for scientists to determine the significance of each gene — and which ones could be manipulated to create an effective vaccine for the disease.

“Our results add to the pool of ASF knowledge that is strictly required to design and develop approaches to disease intervention,” said Finn Werner, director of the Institute for Structural and Molecular Biology at UCL and an investigator at the Wellcome Trust, which funded the research. “Without a thorough knowledge of the fundamental science of the virus, we’re all fumbling in the dark like before the dawn of molecular biology.”

Potential for antiviral drugs

The results, Werner said, not only identify potential targets for the development of a vaccines, but also pave the way for the development of another means of controlling ASF: antiviral drugs.

Antivirals prevent viral transcription, limiting the severity of subsequent infections. These drugs could be administered in animal feed and used to treat and limit the spread of a virus in the earliest stages of an outbreak, Werner said. This therapy could be used with or without the use of a complimentary vaccine.

The Pirbright Institute is working on two potential vaccines for ASF, and has also partnered with ViroVet to produce antiviral drugs capable of combating the virus.

“What we need are resources in the shape of large research grants,” Werner said, “and these are still very sparse — in spite of the acute and global emergency that ASF presents.”

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