Ian Lipkin virus hunter discovered over 500 viruses worked in SARS China, discovered MERS in Saudi Arabia

Ian Lipkin, discoverer of over 500 viruses

6:37 AM, 10th March 2014
Ian Lipkin virus hunter
Ian Lipkin, world-renowned virus hunter.

NEW YORK, US: Ian Lipkin, world-renowned virus hunter, has discovered or characterized over 500 viruses previously mysterious to humans. He is often jetting off to far-flung countries - countries in the middle of strange epidemics. He has worked from SARS in China to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Saudi Arabia.

Lipkin’s major viral diseases are: HIV, West Nile, SARS, and so on. One of the major viral diseases is MERS, the mysterious pneumonia-like illness that broke out in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since claimed 79 lives. Last week, his lab at Columbia University co-published a paper in mBio with further evidence that camels are involved in the spread of MERS. Understandably, it’s difficult to bring dangerous mystery viruses into the US, so Lipkin brought his lab to Saudi Arabia.

Lipkin and his colleagues devised a mobile lab that fit into exactly six pieces of checked luggage (two for each three team members going) and shipped only one item, a robot used for DNA and RNA samples. Then they set up shop – “like any old biology lab as long as you have running water and electricity,” said Lipkin.

With this new mobile lab, Lipkin’s team can quickly set up anywhere in the world. Not everything was perfect in it the first outing, though. One machine broke, and the fastest way to get it replaced was to fly a researcher all the way back to New York.

The study looked for sequences matching the MERS virus in Saudi Arabia’s one-humped camels and found it to be ubiquitous, even in samples collected as far back as 1992. The genetic sequences found in camels also matched that of infected humans. There may be other animals involved in the transmission of MERS, too, but this is pretty compelling evidence that camels, which are used for milk, meat, and racing in the Middle East, play a role.

With MERS, Lipkin’s team was characterizing a virus that had been identified with previous research, but sometimes the questions are even more basic: what is the virus causing this disease? Lipkin identified his first virus, the Borna virus, in 1990.

Lipkin and his colleagues developed a new technique for rapidly improved DNA sequencing. The researchers prepared a cocktail of genetic material from 20 or more kinds of viruses. When they mix the DNA from a sample into this cocktail, the viral segments will bind to any matching DNA. Lipkin and his colleagues could then fish out these matching segments and shoot them through a mass spectrometer to determine their mass. From these clues, the scientists can often determine what kind of virus they’re dealing with.

For more exotic and unknown viruses, scientists can use a higher tech version of the sequence and subtract method that Lipkin used to identify the Borna virus. Of course, now it’s all automated, and you can buy all your reagents off the shelf. In spite of the challenges of working with more rudimentary technology a quarter century ago, Lipkin looks back on the Borna virus discovery as one of the high points of his career.

Later, Lipkin spent more time setting up international collaborations than personally working in the field these days. In 2003, he became ill after carrying 10,000 SARS testing kits to China at a time when nobody wanted to travel into the country. He now oversees dozens of projects spanning the world of viruses - from poultry flocks in Iraq to an study on autism and infection in Norway.

 

© Times Of India News 

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