Monday, July 25, 2011

Rapid Identification of Viral Contaminants, Finally

By Ray Nims, Ph.D.

There was a time, not long ago, when it might take months to years to identify a viral contaminant isolated from a biological production process or from an animal or patient tissue sample. The identification process took this long because it involved what I have referred to as the “shotgun approach”, or it involved luck.

Let’s start with luck. That is probably the wrong term. What I mean by this is that there have been instances where an informed guess has led to a fairly rapid (i.e., weeks to months) identification of a contaminant. For instance, our group at BioReliance was able to rapidly identify contamination with REO virus (REO type 2 actually) and Cache Valley virus  because we had observed these viruses in culture previously and because these viruses had unique properties (a unique cytopathic effect in the case of REO and a unique growth pattern in the case of Cache Valley virus). The time required to identify these viruses consisted of the time required to submit and obtain results from confirmatory PCR testing for the specific agents.

The first time we ran into Cache Valley virus, however, it was a different story. This was, it turns out, the first time that this particular virus had been detected in a biopharmaceutical bulk harvest sample. In this case, we participated in the “shotgun approach” that was applied to the identification of the isolate. The “shotgun approach” consisted of utilizing any detection technique available at the lab, namely, in vitro screening, bovine screening, application of any immunofluorescent stains available, and transmission electron microscopy (TEM). The TEM was helpful, as it indicated a 80-100 nm virus with 7-9 nm spikes. A bunyavirus-specific stain showed positive, and eventually (after months of work), sequencing and BLAST alignment was used to confirm the identity of the virus as Cache Valley virus.

The “shotgun approach” was subsequently applied to a virus isolated from harbor seal tissues, with no identity established as a result. After approximately a year of floundering using the old methods, the virus was eventually found to be a new picornavirus (Seal Picornavirus 1).  How was this accomplished? During the time between the identification of the Cache Valley virus and the seal virus, a new technology called deep sequencing became available. Eric Delwart’s group used the technique to rapidly identify the virus to the species level. As this was the first time this particular picornavirus had ever been detected, deep sequencing is likely the only method that would have been able to make the identification.

Deep (massively parallel) sequencing is one of a few new technologies that will make virus isolate identification routine and rapid in the future. It has been adopted for detection of viral contaminants in cells and viral seed stocks and for evaluating vaccine cell substrates by BioReliance.The other is referred to as the T5000 universal biosensor. Houman Dehghani’s group at Amgen has been characterizing this methodology as a rapid identification platform for adventitious agent contaminations.  Each technology has its advantages. Deep sequencing is more labor intensive, but has the ability to indicate (as described above) a new species. The universal biosensor can both serve as a detection method and as an identification method. Both can identify multiple contaminants within a sample.

Since identification of an adventitious viral contaminant of a biopharmaceutical manufacturing process is required for establishment of root cause, for evaluating effectiveness of facility cleaning procedures and viral purification procedures, and for assuring safety of both workers and patients, it is critical that the identification of a viral isolate is completed accurately and rapidly. Happily, we now have the tools at hand to accomplish this.

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