McMaster researchers developed 'fish hooks' to catch samples of coronavirus

Researchers at McMaster University have developed a set of "fish hooks" capable of catching the new coronavirus and quickly released it to the international community in hopes of helping health scientists determine how it's spreading.

Team skipped the traditional peer-review process to help take on outbreak

Associate professor Andrew McArthur, left, and PhD candidate Jalees Nasir are authors of the study and members of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research. (Supplied by McMaster University)

Researchers at McMaster University have developed a set of "fish hooks" capable of isolating the new coronavirus and have quickly released the new tool to the international community to help battle the outbreak.

The innovation will help health scientists determine how the COVID-19 is spreading and track whether it's evolving.

"The reason we want to look at the genome of the virus is to make sure it's not changing as it passes through people and populations and possibly becoming more infective or more dangerous," explained Andrew McArthur, an associate professor and computational biologist at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

Those "hooks" allows scientists to do the "detective work" to find out how it transmits between people and how well it survives outside the body, as well as learn more about its properties using next-generation sequencing, he added.

The urgency of the outbreak and the fact McMaster doesn't have a sample of the cornoavirus led McArthur and his team to skip the typical peer-review and clinical evaluation stages and instead release their sequences publicly right away.

"Right now we just don't have that kind of time," he explained in an interview with CBC.

Instead the researchers are planning to work with Sunnybrook Hospital for future testing and are relying on scientists around the world to perform their own experiments.

"I'm hopeful someone in China or Italy maybe will be the first one," explained McArthur. "As long as someone does it I'll be content."

The "hooks" aren't aimed at diagnosing patients. They work by attaching with the virus's DNA, allowing them to cherry pick virus from among the other types of DNA included in biological samples. And that's not any easy task.

"The molecules you're after like the virus are really rare. It's a tiny fraction. It's really much worse than a needle in a haystack," said McArthur.

Typically a virus is isolated using costly and time consuming processes such as culturing it in cells at contained labs by trained specialists — an option that isn't always available or affordable in countries that have more limited resources.

"Not every municipality or country will have specialized labs and researchers, not to mention that culturing a virus is dangerous," he stated in a media release from the university. "This tool removes some of these barriers and allows for more widespread testing and analyses."

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The team was able to put together the "hooks" so quickly because Jalees Nasir, a PhD candidate in biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster, was already working with Sunnybrook to develop a tool to isolate respiratory viruses when the outbreak began.

Nasir immediately pivoted his project, creating a "sequence recipe" to isolate COVID-19 specifically.

"When you have samples from a patient, for example, it can consist of a combination of virus, bacteria and human material, but you're really only interested in the virus," Nasir said in the release. "It's almost like a fishing expedition. We are designing baits that we can throw into the sample as hooks and pull out the virus from that mixture."

Now David Speicher, a postdoctoral fellow in McArthur's lab, is sharing details of the technology with the clinical epidemiology community around the globe.

McArthur and his team aren't just sharing their tool. They're also making behind the scenes work that went into it available to the public so that a sort of mass peer-review is possible.

"We designed this tool and are releasing it for use by others," he said.

"In part, we're relying on our track record of knowing what we are doing, but we're also relying on people who have the virus samples in hand being able to do the validation experiment so that it's reliable."