Ian Lipkin, world-renowned virus hunter, is often jetting off to far-flung countries — countries in the middle of strange epidemics, that is. From SARS in China to MERS in Saudi Arabia, his lab has discovered or characterised over 500 viruses previously mysterious to humans. But what’s it like working on the frontlines of an epidemic? How do you identify a virus you can’t even see? Gizmodo got in touch with Lipkin to ask some questions about the life of a virus hunter.
To hear Lipkin talk about his research is to hear, essentially, a list of major viral diseases: HIV, West Nile, SARS and so on. But let’s start with one: MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, the mysterious pneumonia-like illness that broke out in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since claimed 79 lives. Last week, his lab at Columbia University co-published a paper in mBio with further evidence that camels are involved in the spread of MERS.
Ian Lipkin with actress Jennifer Ehle on the set of Contagion, where he served as scientific consultant. Photo by Claudette Barius courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Camels and Overnight Flights: Studying MERS in Saudi Arabia
Understandably, it’s difficult to bring dangerous mystery viruses into the US, so Lipkin brought his lab to Saudi Arabia.
He and his colleagues devised a mobile lab that fit into exactly six pieces of checked luggage (two for each three team members going) and shipped only one item, a robot used for DNA and RNA samples. Then they set up shop — “like any old biology lab as long as you have running water and electricity,” says Lipkin.
With this new mobile lab, Lipkin’s team can quickly set up anywhere in the world. Not everything was perfect in it the first outing, though. One machine broke, and the fastest way to get it replaced was to fly a researcher all the way back to New York. “We met him at JFK with a replacement piece of equipment. He had a bagel with lox and a black and white cookie and then flew back to Riyadh,” says Lipkin.
The study looked for sequences matching the MERS virus in Saudi Arabia’s one-humped camels and found it to be ubiquitous, even in samples collected as far back as 1992. The genetic sequences found in camels also matched that of infected humans.
There may be other animals involved in the transmission of MERS too, but this is pretty compelling evidence that camels, which are used for milk, meat, and racing in the Middle East, play a role.
Lipkin (center) with actress Kate Winslet from Contagion. Photo courtesy of Candice Hoffman, CDC
How to Identify a Virus
With MERS, Lipkin’s team was characterising a virus that had been identified with previous research, but sometimes the questions are even more basic: what is the virus causing this disease?
Lipkin identified his first virus, the Borna virus, in 1990. It took him two solid years of working until 2am everyday as he infected rats with the Borna virus, sequenced their total DNA, and painstakingly subtracted the rat genes until he was left with only the genes of the Borna virus. Identifying the Borna virus today? It’d probably take a few hours.
That’s thanks in part to new techniques Lipkin and his colleagues have developed on top of rapidly improved DNA sequencing technologies. There’s MassTag PCR, for example, a rapid system for identifying known viruses. Here’s now it works from a New York Times article:
The researchers prepare a cocktail of genetic material from 20 or more kinds of viruses. When they mix the DNA from a sample into this cocktail, the viral segments will bind to any matching DNA. Dr. Lipkin and his colleagues can then fish out these matching segments and shoot them through a mass spectrometer to determine their mass. From these clues, the scientists can often determine what kind of virus they’re dealing with.
For more exotic and unknown viruses, scientists can use a higher tech version of the sequence and subtract method that Lipkin used to identify the Borna virus. Of course, now it’s all automated, and you can buy all your reagents off the shelf. In spite of the challenges of working with more rudimentary technology a quarter century ago, Lipkin looks back on the Borna virus discovery as one of the high points of his career.
At 61, Lipkin spends more time setting up international collaborations than personally working in the field these days. (In 2003, he became ill after carrying 10,000 SARS testing kits to China at a time when nobody wanted to travel into the country.) He now oversees dozens of projects spanning the world of viruses — from poultry flocks in Iraq to an study on autism and infection in Norway.
“If scientists are lucky, they will identify one novel virus in their whole life,” Dr Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the New York Times. For Lipkin, it’s obviously a lot more than luck working in his favour.
Picture: Columbia University