Virus Hunters: Abbott Leads Detection Efforts Spanning The Globe

Abbott's research efforts help detect new strains of HIV and hepatitis

CHANGING LIVES     |    Apr. 09, 2019

Staying one step ahead of rapidly evolving viruses is no easy task.

It takes a highly trained, dedicated and collaborative team: the Global Viral Surveillance Program. These scientists work to identify never-before-discovered strains of HIV and hepatitis viruses.

Principal Scientist Michael Berg helps lead the program, where he manages the day-to-day operations of importing targeted samples, testing for new viral strains and determining if Abbott's diagnostic tests need to be updated.

It was Michael's first work experience as a laboratory technician at Pennsylvania State University and University of Illinois at Chicago that sparked his interest in basic research of infectious diseases. He pushed aside his earlier aspirations of becoming a medical doctor to pursue this new passion at Johns Hopkins University.

There he earned a graduate degree in molecular microbiology and immunology, focusing on vaccination and the construction and testing of recombinant viruses—like the HIV and hepatitis viruses he focuses on in his work today. Finally, he went on to post-doctorate studies, where he explored RNA splicing and next-generation sequencing.

Michael's background and expertise help Abbott's diagnostic tests to keep pace with the evolving nature of the HIV and hepatitis viruses. When he discovers a new virus strain, he relays the information to his colleagues who scan the sample and enter it into Abbott's Global Viral Surveillance Program database. Discordant samples are explored in detail using next-generation sequencing methods to understand whether there is a molecular basis to explain the results.

Finding them is no small feat, as Abbott's collection includes more than 70,000 samples collected over 25 years, with new samples added all the time.

Michael works hand-in-hand with the Abbott informatics team to collaborate on different data processing pipelines, to ensure their sequence analysis is comprehensive, standardized, and coupled with all the other data obtained on the specimens.

"We need to stay on top of current epidemics like HIV, HCV, HBV. And part of what's involved in that is understanding genetic sequences, because as these viruses evolve, the means of detecting them has to keep pace," says Michael Berg.

Hunting Global Samples

In an effort to make sure that tests can accurately detect viral infections, Abbott collects virus samples from all over the world. "We've collected samples from 45 countries, across six continents. We get things from some of the most remote parts of the world," Michael says.

Along with the logistical challenges and hazards of collecting samples of infectious materials from the farthest reaches of the globe, there are also regulatory hurdles to deal with. Many countries, for instance, have laws prohibiting the export of patient material. Even so, Abbott's Surveillance Program has found an innovative and mutually beneficial solution.

"[Some] countries we'd like to work with, such as China and India, may prohibit the export of samples," Michael says. "What we've done is to set up research facilities there; some at Abbott research institutes, others are at hospitals."

These centers can perform the research locally, and then send the virus sequences back to the U.S. for analysis. This approach allows data to be collected from around the world and added to Abbott's Surveillance library while still adhering to regional laws. Abbott has consolidated this information into a searchable database so samples can be quickly located for testing or inclusion in specimen panels. This invaluable resource of information and samples gives Abbott researchers the ability to verify that current and new tests in development can detect all strains in circulation.

Monitoring Mutations

Abbott's ongoing work helps identify new strains and the latest mutations in viral hepatitis and HIV. This is especially important for rapidly evolving viruses, such as HIV. As the largest world repository for Group O HIV samples, Abbott is constantly testing for genetic variability to determine if Abbott tests are robust enough.

Staying ahead of these evolving viruses requires more than just a large and diverse sampling of viruses, however; it requires cross-functional communication. Michael explains that the Global Viral Surveillance Program's research can influence how other Abbott teams approach refining diagnostic tools and methods to ensure greater accuracy.

Abbott's broad range of tests span the entire continuum of care for people at risk for HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C or living with these viruses whether they are getting treatment at a public health clinic in Chicago or living in a remote village in Uganda. Abbott's tests are also used to screen more than 60 percent of the world’s blood supply, helping keep it safe from infectious diseases.

Expanding Influence

At Abbott, we recognize that it takes both science and a human touch to make the most impact. Though Michael's work is highly technical in nature, his motivations are more far-reaching: "It's easy to get lost in the data sometimes," he says. "but I always keep in mind that there are humans behind it. It has a direct impact on people's lives … We're developing new techniques, informatics, writing sound papers and describing results — that's what motivates me: the opportunity to go out and show that work and see it translate to a final product that helps fight these epidemics."

Abbott knows that virus surveillance is an ongoing and constantly evolving battle. We remain committed to advancing our life-saving research so we'll be ready when the next virus strain is discovered.