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A vital tool for studying viral evolution in a test tube



Evolution of viral variants

“We can now mimic the massive ‘experiment’ that takes place in nature – where these mutations occur due to natural selection, but we can do it safely in a tightly controlled and highly regulated biosafety laboratory environment.” – Professor Alexander Chromich. Credit: University of Queensland

Variants of viruses, such as the one that causes COVID-19, can now be quickly studied in the laboratory, even before they appear in nature and become a major public health challenge.

The University of Queensland, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Monash University and Queensland Health have developed a technology for manipulating viruses synthetically, allowing rapid analysis and mapping of new potential virus variants.

Leading UQ researcher Professor Alexander Chromich said the technology was ideal for use during a global pandemic such as COVID-19.

“This technique should allow us to answer questions about whether potential viral variants are susceptible to a particular drug or vaccine, even before they appear in nature,” said Professor Chromich.

“So far, we have mostly waited and reacted to the viral variants when they appeared, and in the case of SARS-CoV-2 the world is affected by Indian, British and South African variants *, to name just a few.

“We can now mimic the massive ‘experiment’ that takes place in nature – where these mutations occur due to natural selection, but we can do it safely in a tightly controlled and highly regulated biosafety laboratory environment.”

The process developed by UQ uses copies of fragments of viral genetic material to assemble the functional viral genome into a test tube. This allows scientists to quickly generate viral variants and assess their potential to avoid antiviral treatments and vaccine-induced immunity.

QIMR Berghofer helped assess infection and disease caused by the tube-made virus in preclinical models to ensure that the technology was able to generate authentic viruses.

Professor Andreas Surbier of QIMR Berghofer said the study was essential because viruses change all the time.

“We can now observe changes in viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 and we can see which variants may not respond to certain vaccines and antiviral treatments. We can also investigate whether potential variants are more or less virulent in mice and find out which drugs and vaccines will be effective.

“It’s great to finally have this vital tool and start tackling these challenging issues.”

The study was published in Nature Communications.

* The WHO has already classified these variants as Alpha (UK), Beta (South Africa) and Delta (Indian).

Reference: “Universal reverse genetics platform for SARS-CoV-2 and other positive chains RNA viruses ”by Alberto A. Amarilla, Julian DJ Sng, Rhys Parry, Joshua M. Deerain, James R. Potter, Yin Xiang Setoh, Daniel J. Rowle, Thuy T. Le, Naphak Modhiran, Xiaohui Wang, Nias YG Peng, Francisco J. Torres, Alyssa Pyke, Jessica J. Harrison, Morgan E. Freney, Benjamin Liang, Christopher LD McMillan, Stacey TM Cheung, Darwin J. Da Costa Guevara, Joshua M. Hardy, Mark Bettington, David A. Muller, Fasséli Coulibaly , Frederick Moore, Roy A. Hall, Paul R. Young, Jason M. Mackenzie, Jody Hobson-Peters, Andreas Surbier, Daniel Waterson, and Alexander A. Chromich, June 8, 2021, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038 / s41467-021-23779-5

The study includes collaborations from research groups including Professor Daniel Waterson, Dr. Jody Hobson-Peters, Professor Paul Young, and Professor Roy Hall of UQ; The team of Professor Jason Mackenzie of the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity; The team of Associate Professor Faseli Coulibaly from Monash University; Frederick Moore and the team from the Forensic and Public Health Services in Queensland Health.




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