Qatar UniversityInvestigating infection

Investigating infection

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Researchers in the infectious diseases division at the Qatar University Biomedical Research Centre are determined to find answers in areas others have overlooked

Despite the novel strain of coronavirus that has led to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, most research into disease focuses on the non-communicable variety. Hadi M. Yassine says that the infectious diseases division at the Qatar University Biomedical Research Centre, however, takes a holistic approach.

Dr Yassine, a virologist by training, is the centre’s research projects manager and an associate professor of infectious diseases. The research in his division ranges from basic virology and viral immunology to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and genetic markers for resistance to disease. Various teams are looking at the source, spread and nature of diseases such as influenza, hepatitis, food-borne viruses and coronaviruses – including, most recently, the Sars-CoV-2 strain that sparked the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many of these areas have typically been under-researched in Qatar, Dr Yassine says. “We try to do research not only according to our interests as principal investigators, but we also try to serve the community in Qatar.” The centre often works with government bodies, including the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) and the Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME), as well as healthcare providers to fill research gaps.

In one such collaboration, the group carries out virologic testing on behalf of the Ministry of Public Health’s Central Food Laboratories, which monitors food safety. They test for food-borne viruses such as norovirus and rotavirus, and use molecular techniques to identify their source and how they could spread through the population. “One of the main objectives of this is to understand these communicable diseases so we know how to deal with it in case of outbreaks,” Dr Yassine says. “A lot of people in Qatar are expats visiting their homelands. They might introduce a new pathogen that will circulate and cause a major outbreak – in this case, we have to know the sources.

“This becomes very important knowing that Qatar is preparing for mass gathering events, including the 2022 FIFA World Cup. We have to understand the epidemiology of these viruses and how they circulate in the community.”

Ahead of the World Cup, the Qatari government has been preparing for possible pandemics and other outbreaks of disease, Dr Yassine says. Measures to test for and contain Covid-19 ramped up quickly when the first cases were detected in Qatar in February 2020.

But more research is needed to understand how the virus spreads through populations, and Dr Yassine and others have been researching coronaviruses such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) for a long time. More recently, they have turned their attention to Covid-19.

“I’m really interested in understanding viral infections – in particular, I want to understand the evolution of Covid-19,” he says.

On one project, Dr Yassine is working with researchers in Qatar University's College of Medicine and the Ministry of Public Health to examine what he calls the “exported cases” from China, where the new coronavirus originated, in a bid to better understand its epidemiology.

He has also been investigating the evolution of MERS and Covid-19 and using coronaviruses’ characteristic spike protein structure. “We are trying to see if a drug could bind to the spike protein and inhibit its function, to prevent infection of the virus,” he explains.

Meanwhile, researchers in his division engage with the Ministry of Public Health and the Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), Qatar’s biggest not-for-profit healthcare provider, to identify what health services they could provide to support the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Qatar University’s partnership with Hamad Medical Corporation is a long-standing one. The research group is working with HMC and other healthcare providers to conduct extra testing to identify or characterise certain viral strains that are circulating in the community. “We bring them here, we identify them, sequence them and we, for example, associate this genotype or this group with this illness and that illness,” Dr Yassine said.

Another joint project with HMC, MPOH and MME focuses on antimicrobial resistance, taking a “One Health” approach that looks at the whole picture of human, animal and environmental factors contributing to the rise of drug-resistant infections.

While research on AMR has been under way for some time in Qatar, it has tended to focus on humans, rather than on animals and the environment, Dr Yassine says – but it is now well understood that the use of antibiotics in farming contributes greatly to antimicrobial resistance in humans. This research is lead by Nahla Eltai in Qatar University’s research group.

To help remedy that imbalance, researchers at Qatar University are working with HMC to analyse human samples, and with MOPH and MME to analyse animal samples. “We collect samples from live animals – even animals being sold in the market for food – and profile their antimicrobial resistance, and we also look at the genetic markers associated with this,” Dr Yassine says.

Collaboration is key to much of the work that happens in the Biomedical Research Centre’s infectious diseases division. Another major area of work uses genomics data from the Qatar Genome Project, which combines whole genome sequencing with existing phenotype data to produce huge databases that researchers can use to make breakthroughs in precision medicine.

The project has so far sequenced about 19,000 genomes, and much of the analysis on them focuses on genetic markers associated with diabetes, heart disease and cancer, according to Dr Yassine. “But not much work is being done on infectious diseases,” he says.

Using the data, Dr Yassine is collaborating with researchers at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, also in Qatar, to investigate genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases. They are seeking genetic markers associated with infectious diseases and resistance to infection, as well as with virus pathogenesis – the mechanism by which viruses cause disease – and transmission.

This will continue to be a great focus of the division’s work in the next few years, Dr Yassine says, along with work examining co-morbidities with infection. He is one year into a three-year project aimed at improving understanding of influenza complications in diabetic people in Qatar.

“We want to understand how influenza and infection affect diabetic people, and whether influenza and infection can lead to diabetes – because we know, some viral infections do at some point result in diabetes,” he explains. “We want to understand the mechanism of how the influenza virus might lead to diabetes.”

For more information, please visit www.qu.edu.qa

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