Science Saturday: COVID-19 “Live” Virus Research In a Specialized Lab

Mayo Clinic's Satoko Yamaoka, Ph.D., wearing enhanced PPE including a powered air-purifying respirator, working in the BSL-3 lab during COVID-19 virus research

To solve the challenges presented by COVID-19, it’s important to look to the past. History shows that collaboration is the way forward when uncovering secrets of an emerging virus. It is vital for many reasons, a key one being safety. Only a few labs can safely handle a “live,” meaning infectious, sample. No one knows that better than Hideki Ebihara, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic virologist who leads Mayo’s Emerging Virus Program.

As a researcher with worldwide connections and deep experience studying emerging diseases, Dr. Ebihara and his lab are vital to Mayo’s COVID-19 research efforts. From the lab to clinical trials, and diagnostics to decontamination, Dr. Ebihara’s lab is a lynchpin for SARS-CoV-2 research that improves care and fosters a safe working environment at Mayo Clinic. Having this facility to support Mayo’s research, medical practice and education activities means good ideas can move into patient care for use when they’re needed.

Wearing a facemask in the laboratory, Hideki Ebihara, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic virologist who leads Mayo's Emerging Virus Program.
Hideki Ebihara, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic virologist who leads Mayo’s Emerging Virus Program. This program is part of the Mayo Clinic Research shield’s effort to understand virus biology and use that knowledge to prevent and treat viral disease and harness viruses as tools for future therapies.

“The impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented.” – Dr. Ebihara

Before joining Mayo, Dr. Ebihara studied the family of viruses responsible for Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease which generally kill about 50% of those infected, respectively. He has developed and improved various animal models for Ebola, and been involved in Ebola vaccine research. At Mayo, Dr. Ebihara’s lab focuses on tick- and mosquito-borne viral diseases. The Emerging Virus Program seeks to develop better ways to predict where, when and how viruses will jump from their original host into humans.

“A crucial step to identifying the Achilles’ heel ― the weakest point ― of a new virus comes through better understanding of how the virus infects, replicates and spreads in hosts at the cell, tissue and whole-body levels by interacting with host immune systems,” says Dr. Ebihara.

The lab tries to pinpoint the weakest link of a virus in a few ways. The team:

  • Determines how a virus copies itself and how it interacts with the host.
  • Looks at how the virus-host interaction leads to disease through investigations at the molecular level. This helps identify targets for antiviral drugs and therapeutics.
  • Analyzes how viruses change and evolve. This helps develop better diagnosis and prediction algorithms for future emerging viruses.
  • Helps develop treatments, including vaccines, antiviral drugs and therapeutics, by testing them against the live virus.

More than 70% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they originate in a nonhuman species and jump, or spill over, into human populations, according to Dr. Ebihara.

SARS-CoV-2 (teal dots) on the surface of a cultured Vero cell (nucleus at bottom left). Image courtesy of the Mayo Clinic Microscopy and Cell Analysis Core

Read the rest of the article on Discovery’s Edge.


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Information in this post was accurate at the time of its posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding, along with guidelines and recommendations, may have changed since the original publication date

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December 3, 2020 Mayo Clinic COVID-19 tracking and trending map
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