Our contemporary society and standard of well-being lean on findings based on fundamental research, which have made it possible for us to maintain health and diagnose, prevent, and treat diseases, writes Lotta-Riina Sundberg, Director of the Nanoscience Center, University of Jyväskylä.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen concretely how essential role research and researchers’ collaboration in different fields of biology – molecular and microbiology as well as biomedicine – have played in restraining the epidemic. The rapid identification of the current coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) as the pathogen causing mystic pneumonia was possible only because there was prior knowledge about the SARS and MERS viruses that had caused previous epidemics.

The identification of the new coronavirus was also facilitated by the availability of next-generation sequencing methods by means of which the entire microbiome of almost any sample can be analysed in a couple of days.

Such methods are nowadays commonplace in research, and sequencing equipment are generally available at universities, also at the University of Jyväskylä.

The availability of sequencing, international cooperation among researchers, and open-access sequence data have opened us a real-time view on the evolution of pathogens and the genetic diversity of coronavirus isolates found in the world. Thus, the names of different virus variants are frequently heard in people’s ordinary conversations as well.

Some old pathogens are returning

Detailed knowledge on pathogen genome sequence it enables precise diagnostics and vaccine development. When the genome of coronavirus was published, it almost instantly launched vaccine development drawing on various previously well-known RNA- and DNA-based methodologies. Here, too, the development was speeded up by earlier vaccine research concerning the SARS virus that emerged at the beginning of the millennium; it had been found out that the viral spike protein evokes immune response to protect from infection.

Although COVID-19 has been the biggest concern in recent years, other contagious diseases have not disappeared. It is also likely that new pathogens will emerge and cause epidemics.

Also some diseases that have been earlier in control are re-emerging. Especially the antibiotic resistance of microbes, which has increased in recent years, makes the treatment of bacterial infections difficult in the future. One possible solution for this could be bacteriophages. Bacteriophages were discovered already over 100 years ago and  succesfully used in treating bacterial infections across the world before the introduction of antibiotics. Also new methods to eradicate pathogens are being found. Lately, researchers have found natural molecules that kill coronaviruses, for instance.

To keep pathogens and diseases under control, it is therefore important to know specifically how different pathogens are transmitted from one individual to another, and how they reproduce and evolve. To address these questions, long term basic research provides reliable and fundamental knowledge obtained in.

Such knowledge can provide solutions for many challenging situations in society, including those still unknown.

Nanobiologist, Associate Professor Lotta-Riina Sundberg is the Director of the Nanoscience Center at the University of Jyväskylä.


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