Geelong scores rare honour in science

Wednesday, 15 March, 2006

Victorian city Geelong has received a rare honour in scientific circles with the inclusion of part of the city's name in the title of a new virus.

As described in the current volume (346) of the respected scientific journal Virology, the Beilong paramyxovirus derives its name from the two cities involved in its discovery " Beijing and Geelong.

Beilong virus was identified in a collaborative effort involving scientists from the Peking University First Hospital in Beijing and CSIRO Livestock Industries' Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong.

According to CSIRO's Dr Linfa Wang over the last 40 years, more than 15 new paramyxoviruses have been discovered in animal hosts ranging from dolphins, seals, snakes, rats and bats to horses and humans.

He says while AAHL holds the world's largest collection of recently discovered paramyxoviruses it is still not clear how many of these could pose a risk to human health.

At least two paramyxoviruses can infect humans. Hendra virus killed two people in Queensland in 1994/95, while Nipah virus killed more than 100 people in Malaysia in 1999 and has caused several outbreaks of disease in Bangladesh since 2001, killing close to 80 people.

Three of these new viruses were discovered in rodents. One of these " J-virus " was isolated from mice trapped in northern Queensland in 1972.

"In 2004, the Geelong team was working to complete the genome sequence of J-virus to better understand where it sat in the viral family tree," Dr Wang says. "During a database search, two genes isolated from human kidney cells in China were found to be a close match to J-virus genes."

Australia and China teamed up to discover the true origin of the genes. For the last six months of 2004, the Hospital's Dr Zhuo Li visited Australia to lead efforts to isolate and characterise what was likely to be a virus from the human cells.

"What we subsequently identified was a completely new virus,' Dr Wang says. 'The virus has a genome 19, 212 nucleotides in length, making it the largest non-segmented, negative-stranded RNA virus ever recorded."

"Currently it's not clear whether Beilong virus is capable of causing disease in rodents, other animals or people. Once the distribution of this virus is known, further research is needed to determine its disease-causing potential."

Dr Wang says the team is now working to find out where the virus came from.

"While the original discovery of this virus was made in the human cells, subsequent studies in human kidney samples have shown no infection. We detected Beilong virus in a rat cell line in the Chinese laboratory, which may suggest this virus came from rodents," he says.

Surveillance studies are now being conducted in different rodent populations in an attempt to identify the virus' origin.

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