From Foe to Friend: Therapeutic and Commercial Applications of Engineered Viruses


Viruses were first discovered over 120 years ago as filterable pathogens. Since then, our understanding of virus biology has moved from filterable agents capable of causing disease to an in‐depth mechanistic understanding of both viral replication and the diseases they cause. They have served as road maps and tools leading to the discovery of RNA splicing, oncogenes and tumour suppressors as well as unlocked our understanding of basic cell biology, tumourigenesis and the complexities of the immune system. Although there is still much to learn, the information we have gleaned over the past century highlights the efficiency, adaptability and power contained within these small packages. However, until recently, the techniques used to manipulate and engineer viral genomes were limited and cumbersome. They frequently relied on a combination of traditional molecular biology and virology techniques and could take weeks to months to introduce single mutations. Recent advances in molecular biology along with tools to synthesise DNA have reduced the time to engineer viral genomes from months to days, and in some cases hours. As a result, engineered and synthetic viruses have begun to move from mere pathogens to powerful machines that can be applied in a wide array of therapeutic and commercial applications.

Key Concepts

  • Advances in DNA synthesis and molecular biology are facilitating our ability to engineer and synthesise viral genomes.
  • Modern molecular biology can improve the safety of virus‐based therapeutics.
  • Synthetic virology provides an opportunity to improve and accelerate the existing vaccine development.
  • Synthetic and engineered viruses can be used in a wide range of therapeutic and nontherapeutic applications.
  • Synthetic viruses can be used as tools to understand both viral replication and cell biology.

Keywords: engineered virus; synthetic virology; oncolytics; bacteriophage; vaccines

Figure 1. The illustration highlights several areas in which engineered and synthetic viruses have demonstrated their utility in commercial and therapeutic applications. With advances in molecular biology and DNA synthesis technologies, it is likely that commercial opportunities for engineered viruses will continue to grow.
Figure 2. Conventional methodologies used to produce seasonal influenza vaccine are slow and unable to effectively respond to a pandemic outbreak. Using a completely synthetic approach, researchers were able to go from sequence to a synthetic seed virus ready for large‐scale manufacturing in less than 5 days. This new approach allows for rapid response to pandemic outbreaks and eliminates much of the variability and uncertainty that can plague the traditional egg‐based approach to manufacturing the seasonal flu vaccine.


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DeHart, Jason L, and Kamrud, Kurt I(Oct 2018) From Foe to Friend: Therapeutic and Commercial Applications of Engineered Viruses. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027916]