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.
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.
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.