Vancouver, BC April 12, 2003 At about 4 am this morning, scientists at the BC Cancer Agency’s Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre completed the first publicly available draft sequence for a coronavirus implicated in SARS.
“This is a huge step forward in the fight to control the spread of SARS,” says Dr Caroline Astell, projects leader at the Genome Sciences Centre.
Since receiving one millionth of a gram of purified viral genetic material from Dr Frank Plummer at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, relayed by the BC Centre for Disease Control, scientists at the Genome Sciences Centre have worked around the clock to complete the sequence, using both molecular techniques and state-of-the-art laboratory automation.
“We are very excited about having the ability to do this, and to contribute to a solution for a serious health issue,” says Dr Victor Ling, vice-president, Research, BC Cancer Agency. “I think we can say that we have a rapid-response team who can deal with immediate health concerns.”
Dr Marco Marra, director of the Genome Sciences Centre stated that, “I am delighted that our team of scientists at the Genome Sciences Centre has responded so effectively to the challenge of rapidly sequencing this coronavirus isolate. I am extremely proud of our team. I am similarly impressed by the speed with which viral genomic material was sent to us by Frank Plummer’s group a the NML in Winnipeg and by Drs Bob Brunham and Martin Petric at the BC CDC.”
It is expected that this information, posted on the Genome Sciences Centre’s website (www.bcgsc.bc.ca) as soon as it was generated, will lead to the development of definitive diagnostic tests for SARS. In the longer term, these results may allow scientists to understand why the SARS virus is so deadly, and may assist in the development of an effective vaccine.
Dr Steven Jones, head of bioinformatics at the Genome Sciences Centre led a team of researchers in assembling the genome from the sequence data. Dr Jones says the virus detected appears to be a new type of coronavirus bearing only modest similarity to those coronaviruses previously characterized. “The next step for the Genome Sciences Centre is to analyze the proteins that the virus produces, to try and find clues for why this is such a virulent pathogen. With the public release of the sequence data, scientists around the world will also have an opportunity to contribute to this effort” explains Dr Jones.
Dr Rob Holt, head of Sequencing at the Genome Sciences Centre, says that while the mandate of the BC Cancer Agency is care and research for cancer, it is significant that the agency has been working so closely with other organizations to address such an urgent health issue. “This is a stunning convergence of events,” says Dr Holt. “It illustrates what people can achieve when they rally around a common and pressing goal.”
While the Genome Sciences Centre is dedicated to cancer research, says Dr Simon Sutcliffe, president of the BC Cancer Agency, it has been enormously rewarding for the agency to take the lead in addressing a very important public health crisis.
“We have realized for some time that the study of genomics will be essential to find the causes of, and cures for, cancer,” says Dr Sutcliffe. “This collaborative effort demonstrates that the use of genomics crosses the boundaries of health issues, and gives us the confidence that we’ll be able to meet similar challenges in the future.”