Scientists have created molecular "baits" that can trap any virus known to infect humans, a tool that can be used to efficiently conduct global disease surveillance and cost-effectively control outbreaks. During the Zika virus outbreak of 2015-16, public health officials scrambled to contain the epidemic. The problem was, there just are not many Zika virus particles in the blood of a sick patient. Looking for it in clinical samples can be like fishing for a minnow in an ocean.
Scientists at Broad Institute in the US have developed a computational method called Compact Aggregation of Targets for Comprehensive Hybridization (CATCH) to overcome this hurdle. The method can be used to design molecular "baits" for any virus known to infect humans and all their known strains, including those that are present in low abundance in clinical samples, such as Zika.
The approach can help small sequencing centers around the globe conduct disease surveillance more efficiently and cost-effectively, which can provide crucial information for controlling outbreaks. "As genomic sequencing becomes a critical part of disease surveillance, tools like CATCH will help us and others detect outbreaks earlier and generate more data on pathogens that can be shared with the wider scientific and medical research communities," said Christian Matranga, a co-senior author of the study who has joined a local biotech startup.
CATCH allows users to design custom sets of probes to capture genetic material of any combination of microbial species, including viruses or even all forms of all viruses known to infect humans. Users can easily input genomes from all forms of all human viruses that have been uploaded to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information's GenBank sequence database. The programme determines the best set of probes based on what the user wants to recover, whether that's all viruses or only a subset.
(With inputs from agencies.)