New ways to detect emergent viruses

In a recently published review dedicated to the diagnostics of viral infections, a Russian research team featuring MIPT (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology) researchers is the first to systematically describe and summarize the cutting-edge technologies available. A number of new effective methods of virus detection have been developed over the past few years, including those targeted at unknown pathogens. The authors described the so-called high-throughput next-generation sequencing as a potent new approach. The method promises to revolutionize the detection and analysis of new pathogenic viruses, but it will be at least several years until it is introduced into mainstream clinical practice.

“There are, by various statistical estimations, over 320,000 viruses that can infect mammals,” explains MIPT’s Kamil Khafizov. “To date, less than 1% of this vast multitude has been studied.”

Most viruses, including those that cause respiratory, digestive, and other diseases in humans, remain unresearched and thus almost undetectable. The reason behind this is the narrow spectrum of viruses that the modern testing systems are designed to target.

“Metaphorically, we are attempting to look at a vast sea of threats through the eye of a needle,” the authors write in the review. Among other things, they explore the shortcomings of the polymerase chain reaction method. This essential technique for microorganism molecular testing fails to identify poorly explored viruses, and this constitutes one of the key problems in modern virology. There are, however, new methods that may potentially solve the issues of detecting and identifying new microorganisms. The authors describe next-generation sequencing as the most promising. Also known as high-throughput sequencing, it enables the analysis of multiple DNA molecules in parallel, be it a set of samples, different regions of the same genome, or both.

“Efficient mathematical algorithms are a key part of the method,” explains says MIPT grad student Alina Matsvay. “They allow researchers to compare the genome of an unknown virus against all available references of viral genomes, and predict all of its possible characteristics, including its pathogenic potential.”

Khafizov noted that the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of next-generation sequencing methods for identifying new pathogens in clinical samples and studying the molecular mechanisms of virus transmission from animals to humans.