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National Center for Infectious Diseases, Whitehead

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NCID said to Launch PCR Test for SARS Next Week

The National Center for Infectious Diseases next week plans to launch a PCR test to detect the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, according to the center’s director.

“We’re working very hard right now to ready the recently developed polymerase chain reaction test for detection of the SARS-associated coronavirus, so that we can deploy that in laboratories participating in the Laboratory Response Network,” NCID Director Jim Hughes said in a conference call late last week.

“We’re doing this as rapidly as possible but recognize the fact that there’s a need to further validate this recently developed test and then to develop reagents and provide direction to the collaborating laboratories in how this might be used,” he said. “We’re on a fast track here and we’re hoping that within two weeks we’ll [have] the PCR test out. …”

In an interview with SNPtech Reporter, Hughes said the PCR test will be made available to each of the labs in the United States’ Laboratory Response Network, as well as independent and government labs, internationally.

Hughes said the NCID, which is a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is “doing the bulk of the work ourselves, and we’re working with the Laboratory Response Network” to roll out the tests. The LRN is a nationwide web of at least 50 public health labs organized over the last three years to counter the looming threat of bioterrorism.

While Hughes and other government officials continue to stress that SARS has never been linked to bioterrorism, he said the LRN labs are “ideally suited” for SARS. “What this illustrates is the dual utility” of these labs, he said, and added they had purchased equipment and hired additional staff to deal with SARS.

Hughes called the PCR test “developmental” and said it will initially be deployed to determine whether patient samples contain the virus. He added the NCID intends further to develop the tests so they may eventually be used as in vitro diagnostics. “In order to use a new test to diagnose and make treatment decisions in individual patients, we must have ... FDA approval,” he said. “The FDA is working very closely with us on an NDE.”

He added: “We’ll make that happen as quickly as possible, but it may not occur completely prior to the initial [PCR] deployment.” Hughes said the NCID does not have a timeline for developing such a diagnostic. “I don’t think it’s going to take real long,” he said.

— KL


Whitehead Team finds way to Predict miRNAs

Researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research last week announced the creation of a new computational method that provides a “reliable” way to estimate the number of microRNA genes.

Led by David Bartel at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Christopher Burge at MIT, the researchers used the computational tool to help identify 88 microRNA genes in C. elegans. They also estimated that microRNA genes, often called miRNAs, comprise nearly 1 percent of the human genome, a finding that makes miRNA genes “one of the more abundant types of regulatory genes in humans,” the team reports. The next step, they said, is to investigate their role in cell growth and development.

For years, miRNAs went undetected because they do not code for proteins. In fact, interest in RNA as a gene regulator is believed to have begun when researchers discovered two small RNAs that impacted the translation of genes into proteins in worms. If these RNAs were missing, a worm’s development stalled before it reached maturity.

These findings inspired researchers in Bartel’s lab to take a closer look at the phenomenon. His team soon found a “new world of tiny regulatory RNAs” that exists in a broad range of organisms.

“The regulatory role for RNA had historically been under-appreciated as researchers focused primarily on proteins as gene regulators,” said Bartel. “We are excited about the extent to which these small miRNAs also appear to be involved in normal gene regulation.”

Last month, Bartel and Burge used their new computational approach, called MiRscan, to “streamline” the search for miRNAs, and were able to estimate how many miRNAs exist in vertebrate genomes.

The scientists compared candidate miRNA sequences found in mice and humans to those found in the Fugu rubripes. The researchers said they found around 15,000 genomic segments that were known to exist outside of the protein-coding regions in the human, mouse, and Fugu genomes, “but still appear to have been retained since the last common ancestor of fish and mammals.”

A researcher from Bartel’s and Burge’s labs used MiRscan to cross-examine these 15,000 genomic segments and “accurately predicted” which were likely to be miRNA genes. The researchers found most of the human microRNAs and estimated that there are around 250 human genes coding for miRNAs.

— KL

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