Tuesday, February 15, 2011
LANL Creates Flu Laboratory
By Olivier Uyttebrouck
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Even after the first New Mexicans were sickened by pandemic H1N1 in April 2009, state health officials had no way of identifying the flu strain without first shipping a handful of samples to Atlanta for testing.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratories have developed an automated lab they say can analyze thousands of flu samples in days, offering health officials a fast, detailed picture of an emerging pandemic.
The self-contained lab, housed in a 7-by-14 foot glass cubicle, can analyze flu samples at speeds far exceeding the capacities of existing public health labs, said Tracy Erkkila, LANL's project manager.
"When H1N1 broke out, most of the public health laboratories were just overwhelmed," Erkkila said in a recent interview. The timeliness of the existing system "is not even close to what you need to make some public health decisions."
LANL also built a second self-contained lab that can quickly map the complete DNA sequence of a flu virus — a process called genotyping.
In just four months, the lab has genotyped an estimated 600 type-B flu strains, or about twice the number known previously, Erkkila said. LANL and its partners say that a global network of the labs, dubbed Global Bio Labs, would give health officials and vaccine manufacturers a quick, reliable way of identifying dangerous flu strains and potential pandemics.
"In the event of a pandemic breakout, (health officials) could send their samples to a lab such as this to assess tens of thousands of samples a month," Erkkila said.
LANL developed the lab in partnership with HighRes Biosolutions, a Boston firm, and the University of California Los Angeles, which later this year will house the first "node" of the network, consisting of labs now being built in Los Alamos.
Each node would consist of two automated labs. The first screens large numbers of samples to determine general characteristics of the pathogens. The second performs a complete DNA analysis.
Genotyping thousands of flu strains in both humans and animals could help health officials better predict which strains are making the leap from birds or pigs to humans.
"We need a better basic understanding of how the disease works and how it is propagating and circulating in both human and animal populations," he said.