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.)