Saturday, November 26, 2016

Virologists unravel mystery of late C20th gibbon leukemia outbreak

Animal disease detectives at The University of Nottingham solved the mystery outbreak of lymphoma and leukemia in gibbon colonies that occurred in the US, Bermuda, and Thailand during the 1960s and 1970s.  The outbreaks were caused by gibbon ape leukemia retrovirus (GALV) and spread probably through unregulated international trading of gibbons and laboratory work on viruses throughout military and medical research facilities.

Luckily, the virus no longer seems to be a threat and there is no evidence of the virus among current populations of the gibbons (considered an endangered species). However, the study of the strange outbreak is worth investigating to explore whether GALV may still cause problems in gibbon populations today.

A paper was published in Mammal Review that includes research into GALV and its correspondence to the transportation of gibbons in the 60s and 70s to see how the virus may have been transmitted. Researchers found that lymphoma and leukemia only began to be reported in gibbons in the 1960s when gibbons were imported to the US from Southeast Asia. It turns out that rodents transmitted the virus to gibbons by medical researchers who were working on other human diseases.

The study dug into how the outbreak came about and analyzed the genetic sequence of the retroviruses. In short, this outbreak was due to incidents of human intervention. After this thorough investigation of the outbreak that occurred 50 years ago, we can now rest assured that the risk of such an outbreak happening again is very low.

Emily Nguyen

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