Microbiologists at the University of Birmingham have developed a portable ‘laboratory in a suitcase’ to speed up the sampling of killer viruses such as Ebola in a bid to limit the spread of outbreaks.

The development has been spearheaded by Dr Nick Loman’s lab in the Institute of Microbiology and Infection. His team is focusing on new techniques for real-time genomic surveillance to improve our ability to swiftly react to new cases of life-threatening diseases.

Genetic code

“Genome surveillance provides the ability to sequence the entire genetic code of a disease-causing microbe or pathogen,’ he says.

Previously, the only practical way to sequence Ebola genomes was to export samples to specialist laboratories; obtaining local permissions, securing export permits and procuring expensive shipping to transport samples. Samples that made it to the lab would be received in poor condition, and therefore the genome sequences could take weeks or months to generate.

Important clues

The portable kit was trialled by members of Dr Loman’s team in West Africa, taking Ebola samples from patients and sequencing them as soon as new cases were diagnosed.

‘We were able to generate sequencing information in as little as 24 hours after receiving a sample, with the sequencing process itself taking less than an hour.”

By sequencing 142 samples from Ebola patients in Guinea, the team was able to provide highly detailed information about how cases were related, providing important clues to World Health Organisation epidemiologists battling to halt transmission of the virus.