Bay Area lab helps track H1N1 virus

July 6, 2009 7:18:21 PM PDT
A new research center in the Bay Area is helping to track the H1N1 flu virus. The lab is a joint venture between UCSF and Abbott Corporation and it's using some of the most advanced equipment in the world.

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From his lab in San Francisco's China Basin, Doctor Charles Chiu is tracking the H1N1 flu virus as it spreads across the continent.

Watching its behavior the way a detective might study a wanted criminal.

"We know from experience that influenza has a tendency to mutate quite a bit. Currently the research seems to suggest it may be evolving over time," said Dr. Chiu.

And just as a crime lab I.D.'s fingerprints, Doctor Chiu zeroes in on tiny fragments of genetic code. He starts by placing a viral sample, into highly sophisticated micro-arrays.

The machines can physically compare the sample's DNA to the DNA sequences of known viruses, displayed as lights on the computer screen.

Software helps interpret the likely match.

"With this type of array we can for instance detect 2,000 viruses," said Dr. Chiu.

The advanced technique was actually pioneered at QB3, UCSF's Institute for Quantitative Biosciences at Mission Bay.

Inside, Technology Director Clement Chu, showed off one of the most famous prototypes in the world of bioscience. Known as the virochip, the microarray contains fragments of DNA from every known virus.

During the S.A.R.S. outbreak in 2003, UCSF researcher Joe DeRisi used the Virochip, to identify the obscure virus that was causing it.

"Right when the outbreak occurred in Asia, they got a sample from the CDC, they were able to type it by the next day," said Chu.

Back at the UCSF Viral Diagnostic Center, Dr. Chiu is hoping to use the virochip technology to both track the spread of the H1N1 virus, and also document changes in its DNA.

"The second question we want to answer is how the virus is evolving over time? Is it developing, are there genetic changes that may suggest development of resistance, or if it may be become more virulent," said Dr. Chiu.

He believes the new lab will eventually evolve into a kind of viral surveillance center.

Detecting new outbreaks in their earliest stages and pinpointing their cause in time could perhaps save thousands of lives.

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