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ESR’s Virus Hunters team have proved that groundbreaking new mobile technology could play a major role in combatting global disease outbreaks.

Using a handheld USB-operated MinION device provided to ESR as part of a technology developers programme by leading UK-based technology company Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the Virus Hunters team have shown that sequencing whole influenza virus genomes in the field is entirely doable.

The ability to rapidly and accurately sequence influenza viruses to understand their DNA is critical when trying to determine the best way to treat and stop the spread of an outbreak.

Team leader Richard Hall says their study shows the potential for the device to be deployed in other outbreak scenarios such as bird flu and MERS-CoV.

“Existing methodology is reliable and robust and has served molecular biology well for over three decades, but it is labour-intensive, slow, and not easily adapted for processing large genomes or large numbers of samples.

“Using the MinION we were able to sequence all eight influenza genes from an influenza A virus and get a complete genome that was more than a 99 percent match with results obtained from traditional sequencing techniques.

“The ability to rapidly, and accurately, sequence influenza viruses is instrumental in the prevention and mitigation of influenza but applies equally to other viruses.

“With the way technology is moving it’s not a stretch to imagine an outbreak scenario where first responders in the field are able to identify quickly and accurately exactly what they are dealing with without having to be science experts or needing to set up or access extensive lab facilities,” Dr Hall says.

The work of the Virus Hunters team is the subject of the first published article to report MinION sequencing of a major viral pathogen that affects humans and was also presented at an international invite-only conference (external link) in London.

ESR Research Assistant Nicole Moore, who attended the conference, says the work of the Virus Hunters team will add to the international body of evidence around the potential use of this technology in the field.

“The conference heard that the MinION has already proven its potential in outbreak situations like Salmonella and Ebola and that as well as initial analysis, it can be very valuable in contact tracing and identifying any mutations,” Nicole says.

The study was funded by the ESR Core Research Fund from Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

The full paper can be accessed here (external link)

Watch a short clip of the MinION here [MP4, 3.8 MB]

Read the NZ Herald story (external link)

Read the Genomeweb story (external link)

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