There are approximately 1,400 known human pathogens – viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and helminths that can cause injury or death to a person. But in a world with one trillion individual species of microorganisms, where only scientists have counted one-thousandth of one percent, how likely are researchers discovered and characterized anything that can threaten people?
Not very likely. And there is much to be gained from getting to know these microscopic enemies better.
Thus, although in everyday life it makes sense to avoid these dangerous microorganisms, scientists like me they are motivated to study them closely and to learn how they work. Of course, we want to do it as safely as possible.
I have worked in biocontainment labs and published scientific articles on bacteria and viruses, including the flu and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Here at Oklahoma State University, 10 research groups are studying pathogens in biosafety labs. They identify genetic variations in viruses and bacteria, studying how they function within their host cells. Some baffle how the host’s immune system responds to these invaders and is affected by so-called comorbidities from obesity, diabetes, or old age. Others investigate how to detect and eliminate pathogens.
This type of research, to understand how pathogens cause harm, is crucial for human and veterinary medicine, as well as for the health of mammals, birds, fish, plants, insects, and other species around the world.
Forewarned is prevented
Think of all the scientists who have learned in the last century about how to prevent disease based on understanding which microorganism is responsible, where it is in the environment, and how it overcomes humans ’natural defenses.
Understanding what these organisms do, how they do it, and how they spread helps researchers develop measures to detect, mitigate, and control their spread. The goal is to be able to cure or prevent the disease they cause. The more dangerous the pathogen, the more urgently scientists need to understand it.
This is where lab research comes in.
Scientists have basic questions about how a pathogen behaves. What machinery do you use to enter and replicate a host cell? Which genes are active, to make which proteins? This type of information can be used to identify strategies to eliminate the pathogen or lead to treatments for the disease or vaccines.
As the library of what is known about pathogens grows, there is a greater chance that researchers will be able to apply some of that knowledge to an emerging pathogen.
People may encounter new pathogens as they move to different parts of the world or alter ecosystems. Sometimes a pathogen adapts to a new vector, meaning that it can be transported by a different organism, allowing it to spread to new areas and infect new populations. Approximately 70% of emerging infectious diseases around the world they are transmitted through animals to people; they are called zoonotic diseases. It is crucial to understand how these pathways work in order to have even a modest ability to predict what might happen.
Although there are patterns in nature that can provide clues, the enormous diversity of the microbial world and the speed with which these organisms develop new strategies for their own defense and survival makes it essential to study and understand them as they go. which are discovered.
Can this research be done safely?
There is no zero risk in any effort, but for many years, researchers have developed safe laboratory methods for working with dangerous pathogens.
Each study must document in advance what to do, how, where and by whom. These descriptions are reviewed by independent committees to make sure the plans describe the safest way to do the job. There is independent follow-up by professionals trained at the institution and, in some cases, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or both, to ensure that researchers approved procedures and regulations are followed.
Those who work with dangerous pathogens adhere to two sets of principles. There is biosecurity, which refers to containment. It includes all the engineering controls that keep scientists and their environment safe: enclosed, ventilated workspaces called biosafety cabinets, directional airflows, and anthers to control air movement inside the laboratory. Special high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters clean the air entering and leaving the laboratory.
We adhere to good lab work practices and everyone adapts with personal protective equipment, including gowns, masks and gloves. Sometimes we use special respirators to filter the air we breathe while we are in the lab. In addition, we often inactivate the pathogen we are studying (we basically disassemble it so that it is not functional) and work the pieces one or a few at a time.
Then there is biosecurity, that is, measures designed to prevent the loss, theft, release, or misuse of a pathogen. They include access controls, inventory controls, and certified methods of decontamination and waste disposal. Part of these security measures is to keep the details close.
The research community recognizes this four levels of biosecurity practices. Biosafety level 1 (BSL-1) and BSL-2 apply to general laboratory spaces where there is low or no risk. They would not work with microorganisms that pose a serious threat to humans or animals.
BSL-3 refers to laboratories where there is a high individual risk but a low community risk, i.e. there is a pathogen that can cause serious human disease but there are treatments available. This is the kind of work my classmates and I will do, and many medical and veterinary schools.
BSL-4 refers to working with pathogens that present a high risk of developing significant diseases in people, animals, or both that are transmitted between individuals and for which effective treatment may not be available. According to one estimate, BSL-4 laboratories are relatively rare there are only about 50 in the world.
At every level, increasing risk requires increasingly stringent precautions to keep workers safe and prevent any accidental or malicious misuse.
What is at stake if science ignores these microbes?
In recent years, the world has seen it outbreaks of serious disease caused by various types of pathogens. Even for the pathogens that scientists are aware of, it is still largely unknown. It is reasonable to expect that there are still more threats to be discovered.
It is critical for scientists to study new disease pathogens in the laboratory as they are discovered and understood as they move from one host to another and are affected by conditions; what variations develop over time; and what effective control measures can be developed. In addition to more well-known viruses such as rabies, West Nile virus and Ebola, there are several pathogens of critical importance circulating around the world today and posing a serious threat. Hantavirus, dengue, Zika virus and the Get rid of the virus all are being researched in various laboratories, where researchers are working to understand more about how they are transmitted, develop rapid diagnoses, and produce vaccines and therapeutic products.
Microorganisms are the most abundant form of life on the planet and are extremely important for human health and for the health of plants and animals. In general, people have adapted to their presence and vice versa. For those microbes with the ability to really hurt, it makes sense to study as many scientists as they can now, before the next impacts of the pandemic.