Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Aussie Breakthrough On CoronaVirus

Monkey kidneys and old-school science: Inside Melbourne's coronavirus breakthrough: An old-school science technique allowed Melbourne’s Doherty Institute to grow coronavirus in a flask, the first lab outside China to do so.

The important breakthrough allows scientists to immediately develop much better tests for the virus. And it is a crucial first step towards developing treatments or a vaccine. Most diagnostic labs around the world use cutting-edge genetic sequencing techniques to test for viruses.

The Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, based in Parkville, is one of the few to maintain extensive cell lines, which allows it not only to test for but also to grow a wide variety of viruses. "It’s costly, and it needs skills that are not generally available these days," says Dr Mike Catton, the institute's deputy director. "We have a mix of the old and the new, the classical and the cutting edge. I’d say we’re the first among equals – although my colleagues might not like that."

On Friday a man in his 50s, who was visiting from China and had respiratory symptoms, was brought into the Monash Medical Centre at Clayton. Within hours, a nose swab was under the microscope at the Doherty. The first step was to check the virus' genetic code. By 2.15am on Saturday the team had it – and it was a perfect match for the Wuhan coronavirus.

As the announcement of Australia’s first case of coronavirus reverberated around the nation, the team were already onto the next step: trying to grow the virus in a flask. This was a far more difficult challenge, but crucial. A live virus allows other researchers to develop more effective tests for it.

"It’s a key step in the development of vaccines," says Dr Catton. Labs around the world had tried without success to do it. The Chinese have grown a sample but have not yet shared it with the international community. But the Doherty had been preparing for this for years.

Many viruses are fussy, and will grow only in a certain type of cell. The lab’s freezers house a huge collection of cells from humans and animals. Among them is the institute’s secret weapon: a line of monkey-kidney cells.

"This particular monkey cell line is almost the best cell line there is, because it just grows so many viruses," says Dr Julian Druce, head of the Doherty’s virus identification lab. Dr Catton says: "It’s an art, and Julian is the artist."

Material from the infected man was placed in a flask filled with a layer of monkey cells. The Doherty’s lab is extremely secure, so the easiest way for the scientists to watch their test was via a video camera on top of the flask. Many team members would get up at night to watch the camera feed online.

"That was a bit of fun," says Dr Catton. "If you’re into that sort of thing – I guess maybe we need to get out more." The researchers watched the cells. If they died, it was a sign the coronavirus was active. Vision released by the institute shows the transparent cells turning black – a few at first, and then more and more until the dish is filled with death.

The living virus will now be used to develop an "antibody test", which can tell if someone has coronavirus even if they are not showing symptoms. That will allow authorities to work out the true scale of the outbreak. The Doherty will also sequence its genes so it can be properly compared with other cases in China, allowing it to work out if the virus is mutating.

And when enough copies of the virus have grown in the monkey cells, they will be "harvested" and sent to other labs around Australia and the world– including CSIRO researchers who are hoping to give animals the virus to test potential treatments.

(Peter Doherty Institute: Finding solutions to prevent, treat and cure infectious diseases and understanding the complexities of microbes and the immune system requires innovative approaches and concentrated effort. 

This is why The University of Melbourne – a world leader in education, teaching and research excellence – and The Royal Melbourne Hospital – an internationally renowned institution providing outstanding care, research and learning –partnered to create the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute); a centre of excellence where leading scientists and clinicians collaborate to improve human health globally.

Located in the heart of Melbourne’s Biomedical Precinct, the Doherty Institute is named in honour of Patron, Laureate Professor Peter Doherty, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells. 

Under the expert guidance of Director, University of Melbourne Professor Sharon Lewin, a leader in research and clinical management of HIV and infectious diseases, the Doherty Institute has more than 700 staff who work on infection and immunity through a broad spectrum of activities. This includes discovery research; diagnosis, surveillance and investigation of infectious disease outbreaks; and the development of ways to prevent, treat and eliminate infectious diseases.)

What are viruses? What to know about viruses?

Viruses are microscopic organisms that exist almost everywhere on earth. They can infect animals, plants, fungi, and even bacteria. Sometimes a virus can cause a disease so deadly that it is fatal. Other viral infections trigger no noticeable reaction.

A virus may also have one effect on one type of organism, but a different effect on another. This explains how a virus that affects a cat may not affect a dog. Viruses vary in complexity. They consist of genetic material, RNA or DNA, surrounded by a coat of protein, lipid (fat), or glycoprotein. Viruses cannot replicate without a host, so they are classified as parasitic. They are considered the most abundant biological entity on the planet.

Here are some key points about viruses. More detail is in the article. Viruses are living organisms that cannot replicate without a host cell. They are considered the most abundant biological entity on the planet. Diseases caused by viruses include rabies, herpes, and Ebola. There is no cure for a virus, but vaccination can prevent them from spreading.

What are viruses?

Effects of viruses can range from life-threatening to virtually symptomless. Almost every ecosystem on Earth contains viruses. Before entering a cell, viruses exist in a form known as virions. During this phase, they are roughly one-hundredth the size of a bacterium and consist of two or three distinct parts:

- genetic material, either DNA or RNA
- a protein coat, or capsid, which protects the genetic information
- a lipid envelope is sometimes present around the protein coat when the virus is outside of the cell

Viruses do not contain a ribosome, so they cannot make proteins. This makes them totally dependent on their host. They are the only type of microorganism that cannot reproduce without a host cell.

After contacting a host cell, a virus will insert genetic material into the host and take over that host's functions. After infecting the cell, the virus continues to reproduce, but it produces more viral protein and genetic material instead of the usual cellular products. It is this process that earns viruses the classification of parasite.

Viruses have different shapes and sizes, and they can be categorized by their shapes. These may be:

- Helical: The tobacco mosaic virus has a helix shape.
- Icosahedral, near-spherical viruses: Most animal viruses are like this.
- Envelope: Some viruses cover themselves with a modified section of cell membrane, creating a protective lipid envelope. These include the influenza virus and HIV.
- Other shapes are possible, including nonstandard shapes that combine both helical and icosahedral forms.


Viruses do not leave fossil remains, so they are difficult to trace through time. Molecular techniques are used to compare the DNA and RNA of viruses and find out more about where they come from. Three competing theories try to explain the origin of viruses.

Regressive, or reduction hypothesis: Viruses started as independent organisms that became parasites. Over time, they shed genes that did not help them parasitize, and they became entirely dependent on the cells they inhabit.

Progressive, or escape hypothesis: Viruses evolved from sections of DNA or RNA that "escaped" from the genes of larger organisms. In this way, they gained the ability to become independent and move between cells.

Virus-first hypothesis: Viruses evolved from complex molecules of nucleic acid and proteins either before or at the same time as the first cells appeared on Earth, billions of years ago


A virus exists only to reproduce. When it reproduces, its offspring spread to new cells and new hosts. The makeup of a virus affects its ability to spread. Viruses may transmit from person to person, and from mother to child during pregnancy or delivery. They can spread through:

- touch
- exchanges of saliva, coughing, or sneezing
- sexual contact
- contaminated food or water
- insects that carry them from one person to another

Some viruses can live on an object for some time, so if a person touches an item with the virus on their hands, the next person can pick up that virus by touching the same object. The object is known as a fomite. As the virus replicates in the body, it starts to affect the host. After a period known as the incubation period, symptoms may start to show.

What happens if viruses change?

When a virus spreads, it can pick up some of its host's DNA and take it to another cell or organism. If the virus enters the host's DNA, it can affect the wider genome by moving around a chromosome or to a new chromosome.

This can have long-term effects on a person. In humans, it may explain the development of hemophilia and muscular dystrophy. This interaction with host DNA can also cause viruses to change.

Some viruses only affect one type of being, say, birds. If a virus that normally affects birds does by chance enter a human, and if it picks up some human DNA, this can produce a new type of virus that may be more likely to affect humans in future. This is why scientists are concerned about rare viruses that spread from animals to people.

Viral diseases

Viruses cause many human diseases. These include:

- smallpox
- the common cold and different types of flu
- measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and shingles
- hepatitis
- herpes and cold sores
- polio
- rabies
- Ebola and Hanta fever
- HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)
- dengue fever, Zika, and Epstein-Barr
- Some viruses, such as the human papilloma virus (HPV), can lead to cancer.

What are friendly viruses?

Just as there are friendly bacteria that exist in our intestines and help us digest food, humans may also carry friendly viruses that help protect against dangerous bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli).

Combating viruses

The body defends itself through the deployment of T-cells, which attack the virus. When the body's immune system detects a virus, it starts to respond, to enable cells to survive the attack. A process called RNA interference breaks down the viral genetic material. The immune system produces special antibodies that can bind to viruses, making them non-infectious. The body sends T cells to destroy the virus.

Most viral infections trigger a protective response from the immune system, but viruses such as HIV and neurotropic viruses have ways of evading the immune system's defenses. Neurotropic viruses infect nerve cells. They are responsible for diseases such as polio, rabies, mumps, and measles. They can affect the structure of the central nervous system (CNS) with delayed and progressive effects that can be severe.

Treatment and drugs

Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, but viral infections require either vaccinations to prevent them in the first place or antiviral drugs to treat them. Sometimes, the only possible treatment is to provide symptom relief.

Antiviral drugs have been developed largely in response to the AIDS pandemic. These drugs do not destroy the pathogen, but they inhibit their development and slow down the progress of the disease. Antivirals are also available to treat infection with the herpes simplex virus, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, influenza, shingles, and chicken pox.


Vaccinations are generally the cheapest and most effective way to prevent viruses. Some vaccines have succeeded in eliminating diseases, such as smallpox. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent viruses.

Virus vaccinations consist of:

- a weakened form of the virus
- viral proteins called antigens, which stimulate the body to form antibodies that will fight off future
infections with the same virus
- live-attenuated viruses, such as immunization for poliomyelitis

Live-attenuated vaccines carry the risk of causing the original disease in people with weak immune systems. Currently, vaccinations exist for polio, measles, mumps, and rubella, among others. Widespread use of these vaccines has reduced their prevalence dramatically.

Two doses of the measles vaccine, for example, offer 97 percent protection against this disease. The measles vaccine has achieved a 99-percent reduction in the incidence of measles in the United States (U.S.). If there is an outbreak, it usually affects people who are not vaccinated.

Some people choose not to vaccinate their children, and because most people around them do vaccinate, the risk of getting measles is low. However, if fewer than 92 to 95 percent of people receive the vaccine, a community can lose its "herd immunity," and an outbreak can occur. The risk of disease increases dramatically.

In the words of the CDC: "Antivaxxers help breathe new life into old diseases." This can also affect vulnerable people who are unable to receive the vaccine for some reason, such as a compromised immune system. Viral infections usually resolve without treatment, but medication can relieve symptoms such as pain, fever, and cough.