The world’s most diabolical virus: Pint of Science preview

We’re hoping this post goes viral, but only because we’re rabid for the subject. Okay, puns aside, Dr. Kirstyn Brunker’s research into rabies and viruses as part of Pint of Science is a fascinating look at some of the work scientists are doing to solve global hazards.

Mendeley is proud to be partnering with Pint of Science for the third year running. 

As an introduction to the great talks on offer we’re going to be previewing some of the most interesting here on the Mendeley Blog, featuring speakers from across all Pint of Science themes. You can follow along on our blog under the tag PintofScience17 or on Twitter under the hashtag #pint17.

You can book tickets to hear Kirstyn live in Glasgow on 16 May or follow her on Twitter @kirstynbrunker.


Diabolical literally means “characteristic of the devil”, a term that quite aptly describes one of the most fearsome diseases known to man: Rabies.

Rabies is an infectious viral disease largely transmitted to humans by the bites of infected animals. Domestic dogs are the main culprits, responsible for >95% of human cases. With a fatality rate of nearly 100% rabies has the grim accolade of being the deadliest disease on the planet. Once symptoms appear death is inevitable. These symptoms include: vomiting, confusion, hydrophobia (fear of water), excessive salivation, severe agitation, aggression, hallucinations and paralysis. Descriptions of rabies have included such terms as raging monsters, savage madness and inhuman possession, giving an idea of the terrible trauma it inflicts on victims and their families.

The nightmare and reality

Rabies has established itself in popular culture and mythology as a symbol of evil, inspiring a multitude of books, film and television. An obvious inspiration for vampires, zombies and werewolves it’s responsible for much of the horror film genre! Start to look for it and you’ll find rabies everywhere- Hector’s “strong fury” on the battlefield attributed to a “violent lyssa” (an old name for rabies) in Homer’s epic Odyssey; the symbolism of the rabid dog in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; the rage in 28 days later; Old Yeller

Such is the cultural mythology surrounding rabies it is almost unbelievable as a real-world disease. Yet rabies is still widespread, killing over 59,000 people every year- that’s one person every ten minutes. Perhaps even more unbelievable is that it is entirely preventable via vaccination. Post-exposure vaccination for humans is guaranteed to prevent disease if given promptly after a bite but can be costly and hard to obtain. Alternatively, mass vaccination of the dog population has proven to be an effective, cost-effective means to eliminate rabies in humans. This approach has rid the developed world of rabies but its burden still lies heavily on low- and middle-income countries across Asia and Africa.

A minion for evil

A major stumbling block to rabies control is a lack of adequate surveillance systems that enable resources to be directed effectively. This can be challenging to achieve in resource-limited settings. As a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Glasgow, I work with a dynamic group of rabies researchers across the UK and Tanzania. My research focuses on how we can use genetic information from the virus as part of our surveillance of rabies in Tanzania. Lately this has involved finding ways to do this in the field, using only basic laboratory equipment and limited resources.

Conventional genetic sequencing technologies require expensive equipment, specialist training and state of the art facilities- generally out of the question in the impoverished settings where rabies is most prevalent. Usually samples from Tanzania have to be shipped to the UK for lab work and analysis. This is not only expensive, slow and detrimental to sample quality- it limits capacity building in Tanzania and causes a major lag in feedback to communities.

Step in the minion. No, not the cute little yellow things from that film. The MinION is a pocket-sized genetic sequencer; robust and portable it may help overcome some of these problems. It works by taking electrical current measurements as single strands of DNA pass through nanopores in a membrane, outputting DNA sequence in real-time. I’m hoping to use one as part of a “lab in a suitcase” setup, establishing a ready-to-go genetic surveillance toolkit to use in Tanzania. This will enable rapid feedback to help manage outbreaks.

With a global target to eliminate dog-mediated human rabies by 2030, tools like these are crucial in the fight against rabies.