Understanding smallpox

By • Published: July 20th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Until a few decades ago, no disease in history has been more feared than smallpox.

Consider that nearly two-hundred-million deaths have been attributed to the deadly bubonic plague, a bacterial disease grimly known as “The Black Death.”

But there were more than three-hundred-million deaths caused by smallpox in the twentieth century alone.

And the deadly virus may be as old as humankind itself.

When scientists examined the mummified remains of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses [Ram-zees], who lived more than three-thousand years ago, they found smallpox lesions on his face.

The disease was eradicated by a worldwide vaccination program in the late 1970s.

But only now are we beginning to get a clear picture of how smallpox conducted its deadly business.

By screening all the proteins produced by the smallpox virus in concert with human proteins, University of Florida scientists found a particularly unpleasant pairing.

A smallpox protein called G-1-R disables human nuclear factor kappa-B-1, which activates genes involved in vital immune responses.

Essentially, smallpox disables the body’s first responder to injury… inflammation.

Public health concerns regarding the possible re-emergence of the virus through bioterrorism have led to renewed interest in smallpox. The finding could shed light on the development of treatments for the disease and safer vaccines.

It may be equally revealing about the human immune system.

Scientists may learn a way to inhibit dangerous inflammation from the virus.

That’s a long way from payback for the untold devastation wrought by smallpox.

But it’s a start.