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Researchers To Study Ebola Virus For Mutation Threat

Update Date: Oct 31, 2014 02:39 PM EDT

Tiny vials of inactivated Ebola virus from Africa are being brought into a San Francisco lab that could reveal secrets of the killer's past. 

A team of researchers has deciphered around 30 samples, searching for any pattern of change that forebodes a worsening of an epidemic that has claimed at least 4,400 lives in its most recent outbreak in Africa. 

Up until now, researchers have not found any evidence of genetic changes - mutations - that could make the virus airborne more deadly. 

"If the outbreak is allowed to continue," said Dr. Charles Chiu, director of the university's Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center, "there may be mutations that affect our ability to diagnose and treat the virus and its virulence and transmission."

"It is really important," he said, "that we generate and disseminate our data as soon as possible."

The search for a solution that would test for a pathogen and then scrutinize its genes is not new. 

Chiu's lab, on UC's Mission Bay campus, uses a new and much faster technique to sort through millions of gene fragments and compare them with sequences stored in online databases, the press release added.

"The monitoring of the evolving nature of viruses is key to being able to track the changes that could affect the disease manifestation," said famed epidemiologist Dr. Don Francis of Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases, who is not involved in Chiu's work, in the press release.

"It is very, very important if you are thinking about vaccines and diagnostics," said Francis, who worked on the Ebola outbreak in Africa in the late 1970s, as well as smallpox, cholera and HIV epidemics. "You can look at the sequence and figure out the genes that code for important parts of the virus."

"Viruses are fascinating because they are very simple organisms. Yet they cause such devastating disease. And we have so few therapies," Chiu added. "But a virus is a very efficient replicating machine. It is engineered for maximal replication," churning out up to a billion copies in a quarter-teaspoon of blood.

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