Researchers at the University of Leeds are developing a way to “barcode” viral diseases, including different strains of the influenza virus and human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV)—a virus associated with the onset of asthma in young children, to rapidly test new outbreaks for potentially lethal mutations. The researchers are working to build a bank of molecular signatures that will help identify the severity of virus infection from characteristic changes seen in cells.

"Diseases such as flu infect and hijack our cells, turning them into virus producing factories," says Julian Hiscox, co-author of the study and a member of the biological sciences faculty at Leeds. "The infection causes the balance of proteins in a cell to change—some proteins are overproduced and others suppressed. Which proteins are affected and by how much varies depending on the type of virus, allowing us to identify a unique barcode of disease for each."

The research investigates changes in lung cells infected with swine flu from the 2009 outbreak compared with seasonal flu. Using a labeling technique called SILAC, the researchers measured and compared thousands of different proteins in a sample. This technique was used alongside mass spectrometry to identify the proteins most affected by viral infection and used these as molecular signatures to provide the “barcode” of disease. The study, published in the journal Proteomics, reports how several processes in the cell were affected by the virus, with most changes seen in proteins involved in cell replication.

"Swine flu affects the lungs in a similar way to seasonal flu and this was reflected in the barcodes we found for each," says John Barr, co-author of the study and also a member of the biological sciences faculty at Leeds. "Using this test might have been a way to identify how lethal the 2009 swine flu pandemic was going to be, lessening worldwide panic.

"Our next step is to test more lethal strains of flu, such as bird flu, to see how the barcodes differ. Flu virus frequently mutates, resulting in new strains which may be life-threatening and become pandemic. If we can test new strains using our method, we can determine their potential impact on health by comparing their barcode of disease to those of viruses already studied."

The group from Leeds has already barcoded two types of HRSV which can cause severe respiratory disease in young children. Miles Carroll, co-author of the study and professor with the Health Protection Agency Porton, says, "We have focused our work on common respiratory viruses, such as flu and HRSV, but this method could be applied to a wide variety of viruses, including tropical diseases that are prone to sudden outbreaks and can be lethal."

Source: University of Leeds