NEWS | Aug. 4, 2017

USAFSAM visits JBER for genome sequence testing

By Airman 1st Class Christopher R. Morales 673d Air Base Wing / Public Affairs

Two scientists from United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, visited the 673d Aerospace Medicine Squadron Public Health Flight at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, July 24 to 30 to further test genome-sequencing technology. 

Doctors Clarise Starr, AFSAM deputy division chief, and John Trombley, AFSAM molecular biologist, preserved 67 mosquitoes in four conditions and then mailed them to AFSAM. The Ohio lab will test their sequencing technology on the mosquito samples. This technology will later be able to test samples quickly, consistently and cost-efficiently for emerging infectious diseases before an outbreak. 

Ribonucleic acid, or RNA, is a DNA messenger-synthesizing protein that sometimes holds viruses that DNA doesn’t. Both RNA and DNA are tested with AFSAM’s sequencing technology, but because they both degenerate rapidly when the test subject dies, finding the right preservative from the furthest contiguous United States location is paramount. 

“We have the ability and technology to classify novel organisms and detect when they are emerging,” Starr said. “There [is] a lot of new and emerging stuff coming out with viruses, some of it entomology, some of it microbiology. If we are changing to a molecular diagnostic, we then need to change how we are collecting them.” 

First, the laboratory testing method must be solidified and approved for implementation. Currently, AFSAM receives mosquito samples from various installations, tests them for the flu virus, and sends the results back to those installations. 

“If you’re sick, and you go to the doctor, they should know or have an idea of what you’re sick with,” Starr said. “They would test for the flu – test for whatever you have symptoms for, but if all the tests come back negative, are you not sick anymore? 

“No – it just means you have something else,” Starr explained. “Instead of comparing what someone has with everything we [have], why not just determine what’s in the test tube?” 

AFSAM proposed that genome sequencing a blood sample with a loose primer set is more beneficial at finding EIDs. They would do this by chopping up the sample genes and viewing exactly what it is made up of, including undiscovered strains of diseases. 

The goal is to be able to identify EIDs and constantly evolving viruses to prevent the next epidemic. And in remote locations during a deployment, Public Health would be equipped with a portable sequencer that could send data to a secured digital cloud to be interpreted by a bioinformacist in AFSAM and determine what the sample has in real time.