Monday, December 1, 2014

Lab Techs in the Fight Against Ebola

The Broad Institute, based in Cambridge, Mass., has entered an arms race with Ebola – sequencing viral genomes from infected patient blood samples in a mere 40 hours. To stop this virus in its tracks, we need to understand disease epidemiology in real time. Broad has its own genome-sequencing powerhouse just down the street, with lab technicians staffed around the clock. They laboriously prepare samples for analysis; then 50 machines churn out genome sequence data – 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The Institute has an impressive resume, participating in the 1000 Genomes Project and sequencing genomes of Dengue virus, West Nile virus, and malaria-causing parasites. Now, they’ve turned their attention to Ebola and are fast-tracking the sequencing process, which is cheaper and quicker than ever before.

Pardis Sabeti leads the Ebola and Lassa group at the Broad Institute, which seeks to use genetic analysis for future diagnostic, vaccination, and treatment development. They want to understand how the virus mutates and evades our immune system. And conversely, how some people may have protective genetic mutations that render them more resistant to infection. Some of their early Ebola investigations have brought to light invaluable data regarding viral transmission. Blood samples from infected Sierra Leone patients were swiftly shipped to Cambridge, where Pardis’ team found interhost and intrahost variation among the ebola virus genomes. This variation allowed the team to clarify patterns of viral transmission and mutation in the early weeks of the epidemic. With this, they were able to trace the origin of the Sierra Leone outbreak to a single May 2014 funeral.

With a disease as threatening and rapidly escalating as Ebola, the fight to end it – let alone to just begin to control it – will take a whole army, from health workers on the ground to white coats in a distant Cambridge lab. 


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- Emma Rastatter

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