Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Ebola's Evolving Threat Studied in Calif. Lab

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Ebola's Evolving Threat Studied in Calif. Lab

Article excerpt

Tiny vials of inactivated Ebola virus from Africa are coming into a San Francisco lab, carrying secrets that might reveal the killer's past -- and fateful future.

So far, 30 samples have been genetically deciphered at UC San Francisco by Dr. Charles Chiu and his team, who are searching for any pattern of change that forebodes a worsening of an epidemic that has claimed at least 4,400 lives in its most recent outbreak in Africa.

They have found no evidence of genetic changes - mutations - that could make the virus airborne or more deadly, said Dr. Chiu. Nor are there signs that it is weakening, which would make it less lethal but more burdensome. If Ebola killed more slowly, or just profoundly sickened people, victims would live longer and infect more people, and the disease would spread more widely.

But it is critical to monitor its speedy evolution, he said.

"If the outbreak is allowed to continue," said Dr. Chiu, director of the university's Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center, "there may be mutations that affect our ability to diagnose and treat the virus and its virulence and transmission."

As Ebola spreads, Dr. Chiu hopes to be close behind.

"It is really important," he said, "that we generate and disseminate our data as soon as possible."

Scientists have long been able to test for a pathogen and then scrutinize its genes.

But the standard approach has taken far too long - until recently - to elicit useful information during a swiftly developing epidemic.

Dr. Chiu's lab, in the shadow of AT&T Park on UC's Mission Bay campus, uses a new and much faster technique to sort through millions of gene fragments and compare them with sequences stored in online databases.

Samples of the dead virus - members of the "DRC Ebola Zaire" strain - arrive in sealed "biosafe" envelopes from Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are safe because they have been killed with a chemical solution that breaks down proteins.

They are stored in metal boxes in freezers, kept at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit. For added protection, only two people in the lab know their precise location in the freezers.

Dr. Chiu's team extracts viral genetic material and feeds it into the powerful sequencing machines that spell out the order of nucleotides that make up an organism's DNA or RNA. …

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