UCSF lab tracks viral outbreaks around the world


Gesturing to a pickle shaped object on a computer screen, UCSF virologist Dr. Charles Chiu explained, "The spikes are what binds to cells, allowing it to enter cells."

For Chiu, the object on the screen was just one more mysterious killer on an ever-changing battlefield. His team recently helped identify the new virus which surfaced in the African nation of Congo. He says it's related to rabies, but produces symptoms more similar to Ebola.

"There was a hemorrhagic outbreak in 2009 that was due to a completely new virus from a different family," Chiu said. "And it is actually what we're dubbing the Congo Virus, BAS-Congo Virus."

In Chiu's lab at UCSF, researchers track viral outbreaks from around the country and the world in part, to stay a step ahead of the diseases that could ultimately be heading our way. And this year, there's been no shortage of candidates; from a new version of the SARS Virus in Europe, to a West Nile outbreak in Texas, to the sudden appearance of hantavirus at Yosemite.

"It's been crazy," Chiu said. "I think a major focus of my lab is to look for emerging viruses that can cross the species barrier and basically jump from animals to humans."

The lab has also become an epicenter in the study of viruses. Using powerful new technology, the lab crunches DNA and reconstructs genomes, hoping to spot new mutations that allow viruses to evolve into dangerous new variations including bird flu, known as H5N1.

"And that's really been the big worry about viruses, influenza viruses, especially H5N1, in that you could have a highly pathogenic virus that jumps into a host species, say humans, and then if it spreads efficiently, tgen it can be the cause of a very severe and deadly pandemic," Chiu explained.

Chiu says one current project could have immediate impact closer to home. His team is now sequencing the genes in the hantavirus strain that infected patients at Yosemite, trying to determine if there's been any evolutionary change that would help explain why the outbreak was so virulent.

As for what's ahead, he says that is anyone's guess. "Things have been so surprising I think, that I'm basically ready for nature to give me another one," Chiu said. "I'm waiting for another curve ball."

In the meantime, Chiu's team is working on new tests to diagnose Lyme disease.

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