Kary Mullis is an outlier among Nobel Prize winners. Attendees some of his invited talks in the years after his award will know what I’m talking about. These were famously random affairs, with the audience never knowing quite what to expect when the next slide came up on the screen. And his own book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, will give you about as much flakiness as you can stand.
But although he's been way off base about a lot of things, he may not be that way about everything. I notice (h/t Biotechniques) that he gave a lecture recently at San Jose State, and instead of hearing about the discovery of PCR, the students got an update on Mullis’s company Altermune, whose website website is intertwined with Mullis's own. The site is worth a look. Mullis has a vigorous writing style, and the rest of the front page is his pitch for his company’s approach to immunotherapy for infectious disease:
We have been slowly developing chemistry- the art of dealing, using instruments we devise, with things that are much too small for us to see. They have plus and minus charges on them that we can't feel; they have oily places on them much too tiny for us to notice oil and they have water-loving patches too small for us to see oil droplets beading up on the water. Microbes need all of these things, specific types of them, in fact, to survive, and none of them are beyond the scope of our instruments and our synthetic tools. That's our advantage. Just in this last century we have come to know these things the way we used to know javelins and swords.
How can we help our immune system? Altermune has a shot at it.
Give its antibodies - its workhorse molecules - bionic arms. That's right, little chemical extensions that allow an old antibody to do new tricks. Altermune, LLC, in collaboration with Biosearch in Novato, CA, this summer, fitted up some antibodies whose job used to be binding to something called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactosyl-beta-1,4-N-acetyl glucosamine, with new bionic arms, synthesized on an Applied Biosystems ABI 3900, arms that can tightly sieze an influenza virion, shake it a little bit for emphasis, and turn it over to a hungry human macrophage for further processing. The change was accomplished with a swallowed drug. No need to send the antibodies back to the factory. Viruses never saw the ABI 3900 coming.
It looks like he’s using DNA aptamers as recognition elements for specific pathogens, which are used to bring on a response from the ubiquitous antibodies that target 1,3-Gal-Gal antigens. Here's the patent on the technique. And I have to say, that’s not necessarily a crazy idea at all. That epitope has been suggested before as a way to boost immune response, and marrying that to an aptamer could work. (Other aptamer conjugates are under investigation). Of course, the problem (as with all nucleic-acid based things) is, how do you dose it (and how long does it hang around once you do?)
Mullis seems to be talking about oral delivery, which is a real challenge. But that makes me wonder about a report from a company called RXi, which claims to be having some success in delivering their RNAi therapy to macrophages through the gut. They're packaging things in beta-glucan particles and taking advantage of a transport system (and of the fact that there are macrophages in the gut wall waiting for whatever comes out of the food supply). Perhaps something like this would do the trick for a immunological approach like Altermune's?
The immune system scares me, to be honest. I think that evolutionarily we've always walked a narrow path between "strong enough to fight off threats" and "touchy enough to get you killed". Versions of the machinery that threw their hosts into anaphylactic shock too easily have been weeded out by strong selection pressure - you probably wouldn't live long enough to pass that blueprint on. But it's still a tricky thing to mess with (ask TeGenaro). Using existing antibodies might be the most sensible way to do it. . .