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New Technology Could Head Off Bird Flu

A new microarray can, within hours, pinpoint pathogens that can infect humans. The technology is widely available to researchers for free.
PORTLAND, Ore. — A new technology offers advance warning of the ability of a virus to infect humans. The technique could help stem the spread of bird flu, according to the inventors of glycan microarray technology.

The Consortium for Functional Glycomics, a project of the National Institute of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, is making the technology widely available to researchers for free. The microarray can pinpoint pathogens in a few hours that can infect humans.

"Its like any other medical microarray, but instead of depositing little spots of DNA, we put down carbohydrates called glycans which virus cells bind to," said Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "Most cells are coated with carbohydrates and our technology allows hundreds of different varieties to be put down on a single glycan array."

The glycan microarray was created by consortium members at The Scripps Research Institute in cooperation with Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Microarrays work by depositing hundreds, even thousands, of different examples of DNA. In this application, however, carbohydrate molecules called glycans are used. Samples are then spread across the entire array.

Finally, a fluorescent-tagged antibody that binds to samples is spread across the array and illuminated with a laser. A photocell detector recognizes the precise site where the sample binded, thereby pinpointing a specific glycan and revealing whether the sample could infect humans.

"The microarray holds the carbohydrates and you add hemagglutinin—the binding protein from the virus," Berg said. The technique then recognizes which carbohydrate the hemagglutinin binded with using the tagged antibody.

For viruses and many other pathogens, the carbohydrates on human or bird cell surfaces offer a binding site that enables them to burrow through and cause infections. The Consortium for Functional Glycomics was formed to determine which carbohydrates coat which cells as well as catalog their vulnerability to infections from various pathogens.

The glycan microarray was developed to house all this knowledge on a single chip so that carbohydrate binding site vulnerabilities can be quickly identified for a variety of maladies.

"There is a huge universe of carbohydrates on the surface of cells. Our technology was not developed specifically for influenza, but is a very broad research tool," said Berg.

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