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'Barcoding' viruses could help detect mutated strains

A team out of the University of Leeds has already produced molecular signatures for two forms of a childhood respiratory-disease virus, and plans many more.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

The influenza A virus ranks among our planet's least-controlled pathogens, resulting in seasonal epidemics and even global pandemics. The H1N1 virus of 2009 -- a new type of influenza A virus -- caused the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barcoding viruses based on molecular behavior could help researchers quickly identify how severe a new strain might be. University of Leeds

But despite the fast and furious spread of H1N1 that year, it turned out to affect the lungs much in the way the seasonal flu does. Using a new type of test developed at the University of Leeds "might have been a way to identify how lethal the 2009 swine flu pandemic was going to be, lessening worldwide panic," John Barr of the university's Faculty of Biological Sciences said in a school news release.

The biologists working on the test like to describe it as "barcoding" virus strains. They are essentially building a bank of molecular signatures that can quickly identify, based on cellular behavior, how severe new virus strains are likely to be.

"Diseases such as flu infect and hijack our cells, turning them into virus-producing factories," says research co-author Julian Hiscox, whose article appears this week in the journal Proteomics. "The infection causes the balance of proteins in a cell to change; some proteins are overproduced and others suppressed. Which proteins are affected and by how much varies depending on the type of virus, allowing us to identify a unique barcode of disease for each."

The team has already barcoded two types of human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV), which is associated with the onset of asthma in kids. In the latest study, the team focus on changes in lung cells infected with the H1N1 strain compared with seasonal flu, using a labeling technique known as SILAC to compare thousands of proteins in a sample.

Then, using mass spectrometry to determine which proteins were most affected by the viral infections, the team was able to observe many changes in cell behavior, and found that most of them were seen in proteins involved with cell replication.

The researchers say their next step will be to test more lethal strains of influenza, such as bird flu, and compare the resulting barcodes. Because flu viruses can mutate so quickly and so often, being able to test new strains quickly could help public health officials better manage coming epidemics and perhaps even ward off global pandemics.