July 25, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

CDC Plans to Map DNA of Disease-Causing Viruses

Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A tiny gene sequencing chip can help to identify the DNA of a virus in just three hours, compared with what previously took months.

Other obstacles also must be overcome before the CDC gets back to the cutting edge of disease detection.

Public health labs say they’ll need a more sophisticated workforce at a time when training funds are scarce. Also, to be able to make sense of the gobs of genetic data they’ll be getting, labs will need a reference library that in turn must build up its own genetic profiles of individual diseases.

That’s the case so a match can be made identifying a particular medical condition. Public health officials also may have to address concerns that advanced molecular detection could unintentionally weaken the existing system for monitoring the outbreak of foodborne illnesses.

AMD at Work

The viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease each have their own individual genetic makeups. Advanced molecular detection is used to determine what they are.

It does so by analyzing a small sample of virus or bacteria, for example. It prints out a sequence of the genes in the sample involved. That allows a precise match to a particular medical condition.

Also, the data can be made available within hours to the “bioinformatics” specialists who have the expertise to interpret it. These “rapid gene sequencing” techniques can be applied without the painstaking culturing of samples in labs over a period of days or weeks. It also can quickly determine whether bacteria is drug resistant — speed that could save thousands of lives, officials say.

“Imagine putting together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with the speed you could normally do a 100-piece puzzle — apply that to infectious disease control and that’s AMD at work,” says a CDC fact sheet on the technology. “Now imagine, while disease is spreading and people are dying, trying to put a 10,000 piece puzzle together when key pieces are missing. That’s what many CDC scientists are struggling against today.”

Investing in AMD “would bring the U.S. public health system a more precise and accurate means to find smoldering disease outbreaks we are missing now, find disease outbreaks faster to protect communities, and stop threats in our food supply,” the fact sheet said.

The CDC says highly resistant bacteria in hospitals are creating constant concern, as are “killer microbes that jump from animals to humans, and new virulent pathogens emerging.” It estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from contaminated food each year at a $77 billion cost in health care expenses and workplace and other economic costs.

Flu costs businesses some $10 billion a year and, according to the agency, “five killer microbes and counting are nearly resistant to all available drug treatments.” Each year 2 million people in the United States get infections that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 die as a result, it adds.

But the problem could grow worse, the agency says, naming antibiotic resistance one of the top five health threats in 2014. But with advanced molecular detection, public health officials and health care facilities will be better able to track and stop the rise of drug-resistant infections, the agency says.

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