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Virus ‘barcodes’ offer rapid detection of mutated strains

Visit  University of Leeds website

14 May 2012

Researchers funded by BBSRC and others are developing a way to 'barcode' viral diseases to rapidly test new outbreaks for potentially lethal mutations.

Dr Julian Hiscox and Dr John Barr of the University of Leeds's Faculty of Biological Sciences are working with the Health Protection Agency Porton (HPA) to build a bank of molecular signatures that will help identify the severity of virus infection from characteristic changes seen in cells. Currently the team is barcoding different strains of influenza virus and human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV) - a virus associated with the onset of asthma in young children.

"Diseases such as flu infect and hijack our cells, turning them into virus producing factories," says Dr Hiscox. "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 research, published [today] in Proteomics, investigates changes in lung cells infected with swine flu from the 2009 outbreak compared with seasonal flu. The team used a labelling technique called SILAC to measure and compare thousands of different proteins in a sample.

This technique was used alongside mass spectrometry to identify the proteins most affected by viral infection and used these as molecular signatures to provide the 'barcode' of disease. The paper reports how several processes in the cell were affected by the virus, with most changes seen in proteins involved in cell replication.

"Swine flu affects the lungs in a similar way to seasonal flu and this was reflected in the barcodes we found for each," explains Dr Barr. "Using this test might have been a way to identify how lethal the 2009 swine flu pandemic was going to be, lessening worldwide panic.

"Our next step is to test more lethal strains of flu, such as bird flu, to see how the barcodes differ. Flu virus frequently mutates, resulting in new strains which may be life-threatening and become pandemic. If we can test new strains using our method, we can determine their potential impact on health by comparing their barcode of disease to those of viruses already studied."

The group from Leeds has already barcoded two types of HRSV which can cause severe respiratory disease in young children. Co-author Professor Miles Carroll of HPA Porton says: "We have focused our work on common respiratory viruses, such as flu and HRSV, but this method could be applied to a wide variety of viruses, including tropical diseases that are prone to sudden outbreaks and can be lethal."

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

ENDS

Notes to editors

The study, titled A quantitative proteomic analysis of lung epithelial (A549) cells infected with 2009 pandemic influenza A virus using stable isotope labelling with amino acids in cell culture (SILAC) is published online by Proteomics (DOI: 10.1002/pmic.201100470 ). The full paper is available from Campus PR or the University of Leeds Press Office.

About the Faculty of Biological Sciences

The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over 110 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students.

The Faculty is ranked 4th in the UK (Nature Journal, 457 (2009) doi:10.1038/457013a) based on results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE feedback noted that "virtually all outputs were assessed as being recognized internationally, with many (60%) being internationally excellent or world-leading" in quality. The Faculty's research grant portfolio totals some £53M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk

About the University of Leeds

The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk

About the Health Protection Agency

The Health Protection Agency is an independent UK organisation that was set up by the government in 2003 to protect the public from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards. In April 2013, subject to the usual approvals procedures for establishing new bodies, the Health Protection Agency will become part of a new organisation called Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health. To find out more, visit our website: www.hpa.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @HPAuk.

About NIHR

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) provides the framework through which the research staff and research infrastructure of the NHS in England is positioned, maintained and managed as a national research facility. The NIHR provides the NHS with the support and infrastructure it needs to conduct first-class research funded by the Government and its partners alongside high-quality patient care, education and training. Its aim is to support outstanding individuals (both leaders and collaborators), working in world class facilities (both NHS and university), conducting leading edge research focused on the needs of patients. www.nihr.ac.uk

About MRC

For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council (MRC) has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including the first antibiotic penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. See www.mrc.ac.uk

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Dr Julian Hiscox, University of Leeds

tel: 0113 343 5582
mob: 07545 591447

Dr John Barr, University of Leeds

tel: 0113 343 8069

Jo Kelly, Campus PR

tel: 0113 357 2103
mob: 07980 267756

University of Leeds Press Office

tel: 0113 343 4031