A Massachusetts-based biotech company with a lab in Fitchburg is helping researchers uncover the genetic code for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Thermo Fisher Scientific designs products to aid in the genetic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, more commonly known as the new coronavirus. That will give scientists “biological insights” into the virus, Angjali Shah, senior director of product development, told the Star in an email.
Shah said sequencing a virus’ genome helps scientists identify where it came from, how it is transmitted from person to person, how it attacks someone’s body, the prevalence of it in a population and how it evolves and mutates.
“With this information, you can inform outbreak containment strategies and vaccine development and efficacy,” she wrote.
Sequencing also lends researchers knowledge about a person’s susceptibility to the virus and how severe a COVID-19 case might be.
Scientists were first able to sequence the virus in January, the New York Times reported April 3. The genome came from a 41 year old man who worked at the seafood market in Wuhan, China, where the first cluster of COVID-19 cases appeared.
From that sample, the scientists deciphered exactly how the virus replicates in the human body – it binds to ACE-2 receptor enzymes in human DNA with spike proteins that unlock the receptor like a key. From there, it replicates and continues to infect its host. Scientists also now know, the Times reported April 30, that the virus has mutated since that first cluster of cases, producing new strains that originate from different areas.
For example, most COVID-19 cases sequenced from Dane County patients appeared to have come from Europe, while Milwaukee area samples stemmed from Asia, according to preliminary genetic sequencing data by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, the Wisconsin State Journal reported May 1.
There are two ways of genetically sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 virus through Thermo Fisher Scientific’s system, Shah said. Both are referred to as “next generation sequencing.”
She said the first approach involves targeted “enrichment” of a specific virus genome species. That enrichment involves capturing a subset or a region of the virus’s genome through a special probing process.
“In this approach, you usually need a prior knowledge of the genetic sequence of the virus to ensure that you specifically enrich it for the virus of interest,” she explained. “For example, there are many types of coronaviruses, like SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2.”
The benefits of this first approach include a low cost to produce a sample, Shah said.
The second approach uses RNA sequencing with all species in the sample.
“So if you have a mixture of virus and human RNA in a sample, you will sequence both,” Shah explained. “The benefit of this approach is that you can see the complexity of different species – viral, human, bacterial organisms.”