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Viral Studies

Researchers at the Broad Institute led by Pardis Sabeti are applying genome sequencing to get a better handle on the Ebola and Lassa viruses, the New York Times reports.

Not only are they examining the viruses themselves for any changes that might be cropping up in their genomes that may enable them to evade the host immune system or be more virulent, they are also studying the genomes of the patients to see whether they have gene variants that make them more susceptible to infection.

Sabeti and her team analyzed the blood of 78 Sierra Leone Ebola patients from early in the outbreak, finding that the virus was constantly mutating. She tells the Times that that isn't surprising as that's what viruses do, though "it is also always something we should be concerned about."

Meanwhile, in Lassa, she and her colleagues have found a gene mutation in people that appears to protect them from infection. A change to the LARGE gene prevents the virus from gaining entry into cells. And that change seems to be more common in Nigeria where Lassa been for a thousand years, than in Sierra Leone, where the virus has been for only 150 years.

Since Ebola and Lassa cases have similar presentations — fevers, diarrhea, and vomiting — Sabeti and the Broad have also been working on a quick diagnostic test and examining how mutations in the viruses affect viral spread.

"There are hundreds of mutations evolving in individuals," she adds. "We can see the new mutations emerging, and it helps us understand transmission."