Scientists help develop technologies to decode the Ebola virus

Natasha Rickett processing samples in the European Mobile Laboratory

Scientists from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health have supported the development of a portable device that offers on-the-spot data to allow rapid characterisation of the Ebola virus in the field.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the largest on record, responsible for over 28,599 cases and more than 11,299 deaths. Characterisation of diseases, or genome sequencing, in viral outbreaks is desirable to identify the infectious agent and determine its evolutionary rate.

Following from the team’s earlier work in detailing the evolution of the virus, members of Professor Julian Hiscox’s research group, Isabel Dorival, Elsa-Gayle Zekeng and Natasha Rickett, who were deployed as part of the European Mobile Laboratory at the epicentre of the outbreak in Guinea, have been gathering and processing samples to help test a portable device for molecular analyses as part of a wider team.  Senior research Fellow Dr Georgios Pollakis used the data to calculate the rate of evolution of the virus to help validate the MinIon approach.

Geographical journey

The device, called MinION, can be used in the field and sequence small genomes (an organism’s complete set of DNA), such as those of bacteria and viruses, displaying the results as they are generated. This can help scientists bring outbreaks of diseases, such as Ebola or Zika, under control by enabling them to identify mutations in real time. It also allows health workers in emergencies to quickly establish the evolution and geographical journey of the virus through communities.

The pocket-sized device was created by an Oxfordshire science company.

Professor Julian Hiscox, from the University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, said: “Every virus has a unique genetic code and when that has been ‘decoded’ we can determine where it has come from whether it be from the next village or a district 30 miles away.

“We can then start to plot how the individual has come in contact with the virus and plot how it has been spread geographically.”

A paper published this month in the journal Nature highlights how the device was used during the Ebola virus epidemic and can be found here.

Natasha processing samples1

Leave a comment