Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The CCR5 protein or God?

"Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over for none have died of the plague since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty," wrote the church leader of the Derbyshire village of Eyam, William Mompesson, in 1666. The plague to which Mompresson referred was the Black Death or bubonic plague which wiped out millions of Europeans during those rat-infested years.

The Science Channel documented the events of that small village outside of London and the startling discovery that was made about the descendants of the villagers of Eyam. In the summer of 1665, the village tailor received a parcel of material from his supplier in London. This parcel contained the fleas that caused the plague. The tailor was dead from the plague within one week of receiving his parcel. By the end of September, five more villagers had died. Twenty three died in October.

Some of the villagers suggested that they should flee the village for the nearby city of Sheffield. Mompesson persuaded them not to do this as he feared that they would spread the plague into the north of England that had more or less escaped the worst of it. In fact, the village decided to cut itself off from the outside would. They effectively agreed to quarantine themselves even though it would mean death for many of them.

The village was supplied with food by those who lived outside of the village. People brought supplies and left them at the parish stones that marked the start of Eyam. The villages left money in a water trough filled with vinegar to sterilize the coins left in them. In this way, Eyam was not left to starve to death. Those who supplied the food did not come into contact with the villagers.

By November 1666, the plague was considered at an end. 260 out of 350 had died in the village but their sacrifice may well have saved many thousands of lives in the north of England, yet the 'sacrifice' has had a marvelous rippling effect into modern times. It is all about DNA, the DNA of the relatives of the villagers of Eyam.

Medical detective Stephen O'Brien, as documented in the Science Channel episode, "Secrets of the Great Plague," wondered why the entire village of Eyam wasn't wiped out, as it quarantined itself and allowed no one to 'escape' the village. Why had 83 'survived' the plague? The village grave-digger even survived despite handling the hundreds of plague-infected corpses. O'Brien suspected that the survivors may have had 'natural' immunity to the disease and so he journeyed to the village to ask the descendants for DNA samples so that he could analyze them. To his great satisfaction, a CCR5 gene mutation called "delta 32," was found in a statistically significant number of the villagers: in 14% of direct descendants of the plague survivors.

O'Brien knew that certain populations have inherited the Delta 32 mutation resulting in the genetic deletion of the CCR5 gene. He also knew that the deletion of a 32-bp segment results in a nonfunctional receptor, thus preventing HIV R5 entry; two copies of this allele provide strong protection against HIV infection. Homozygous carriers of this mutation are resistant to HIV-1 infection, and O'Brien suspected that some of the Eyam villagers of 1665 were homozygous carriers as well. These were the 83 survivors.

O'Brien has further suggested that there are 'survivors' in this world, people who rarely are affected by wide-spread diseases and epidemics. He believes that those with double Delta 32 mutation may, in fact, be the real human survivors of all time, able to withstand bubonic plague, flu epidemics, cancers, and HIV-AIDS. This is yet to be determined and is yet only hypothesis.

One can muse, however, on those Sunday prayer services held by Rev. Mompesson in those dark years of 1665 and 1666. Did he, in fact, ask God to 'bless' the villagers and keep them safe? Did those who lay dying of the plague wonder why God forsook them? Did they believe that their 'sins' had caused the illness? How many abandoned 'God' altogether in the last throes of their illness? Did Mompresson ever doubt that God would 'save' his village, his wife, his children?

A mutant chromosome 3 protein or God? What 'saved' the village?

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