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ESR’s Virus Hunters

23 November 2017

Pandemic preparedness
Genetic technology
ESR’S Virus Hunters
ESR’S Virus Hunters

They are science’s answer to a squad of crack cold case detectives — a team of researchers whose mission is to identify mystery diseases which have been placed in the too-hard basket.

ESR’s Virus Hunters are our specialist scientists who draw on next-generation DNA-sequencing technology to unravel unidentified samples from patients whose bugs remain undiagnosed.

Previously, scientists had to know specifically what DNA they were looking for, but the new technology provided the complete picture.

Since the team was set up in 2009, large gains have been made in understanding a range of viruses and disease — and not just in humans.

In recent years, the team detected coronaviruses present in endangered New Zealand short-tailed bats, despite the species living in isolation from other bat species for millions of years. They also identified the case of human parechovirus 3 (HPeV3) from a faecal sample taken from 2-year-old who became sick during a gastro outbreak at a childcare facility in 2012. The team discovered it during a Health Research Council-funded study into unsolved outbreaks of human gastroenteritis, which is characterised by vomiting and diarrhea.

ESR's Virus Hunters are also utilising the MinION - a breakthrough portable DNA sequencer produced by Oxford Nanopore Technologies in the UK. It weighs less than 100 grams, is approximately the size of a chocolate bar and is powered by USB. Not restricted by size, the device allows sequencing to occur in isolated places where large sequencing devices cannot be used such as mountain tops, the Arctic, jungles, and even on the International Space Station. This cutting-edge technology is advancing ESR's methods of gathering and analysing sequencing data both in New Zealand and beyond and is proving to be a real game-changer.