Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's game time for scientists

Flu allows city lab to flex muscles

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TORONTO -- The scientific director of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory was watching a Friday night hockey game when he checked his BlackBerry for messages, something the towering scientist with the distinctive shock of white hair does on a regular basis.

Though the game was less than two weeks ago, Dr. Frank Plummer can no longer remember which teams were playing. There's little wonder.

Plummer's compulsive email checking brought to his attention a call for help from his counterpart at Mexico's national microbiology lab, the Instituto de Diagnostico y Referencia Epidemiologicos.

His quick responding offer of assistance led to the Winnipeg lab being the second in the world to come to study a virus that may be poised to trigger a flu pandemic, the novel swine flu virus that is spreading in humans in Mexico, the United States, Canada, and a growing number of countries.

For most people, the mere mention of disease outbreaks is anxiety provoking. But for microbiologists and virologists who work in places like the national lab in Winnipeg, there's an undeniable jolt of excitement that comes from finding something others haven't seen before -- even if it could lead to an outbreak they might dread.

"This is one of the things we're created for and we prepare for all the time," says Plummer, excitement evident in his voice. "It's like the fire department, right? Are they happy when there's a fire? No. But there's an adrenaline rush with it."

It was April 17. The email was from Dr. Celia Alpuche Aranada, with whom Plummer has regular interaction through Canada-U.S.-Mexico collaborations. She described an alarming situation -- outbreaks of severe respiratory infections in four Mexican cities. Her lab had been unable to diagnose what was behind the outbreaks.

"It sounded dire," Plummer admits.

Alpuche asked for help and Plummer offered it.

Coincidentally, the day the email arrived was also the same day U.S. officials informed the World Health Organization the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta had found a case of human infection with a swine flu virus in a person in California.

Plummer hadn't yet learned about the U.S. finding when he replied to Alpuche. He wasn't thinking influenza. He thought they might be diagnosing the next SARS.

Fifty-one specimens arrived at the lab's loading dock on April 22. Scientists quickly got down to work, using techniques designed to increase the likelihood that the limited material in the specimens would yield results.

The Winnipeg scientists ran tests designed to look for known human flu strains and for what is known as untypeable flu viruses -- viruses that don't circulate in people so cannot be found by tests designed to diagnose human flu.

They looked for one of the genes of flu viruses, the matrix gene. "And that was the first positive hit we got."

Using genetic sequence data posted on an Internet-based databank by the CDC, the Winnipeg scientists created primers -- pieces of RNA that are used in polymerase chain reaction testing -- to look for the two surface genes of the flu virus the CDC had found.

And lo and behold, Winnipeg discovered Mexico had an outbreak of swine flu infection.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2009 A5

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