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UAMS researchers track monkeypox mutation as possible spur to its spread

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UAMS researchers track monkeypox mutation as possible spur to its spread

Sep 26, 2022 | 7:35 pm ET
By Advocate Staff
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UAMS researchers track monkeypox mutation as possible spur to its spread
Health workers in California at a monkeypox vaccination site in August 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A team of UAMS researchers found that the recent rapid spread of the monkeypox virus may be different from previous outbreaks because of genetic mutations they identified, according to a press release from the medical school.

The researchers, led by UAMS’ David Ussery, published their findings this month in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

The research team’s findings are a starting point for additional investigation in the lab, Ussery said. A follow-up study will be needed to identify the changed properties of the monkeypox virus and to test which mutations are responsible for the virus’ increased ability to spread.

The team used advanced genomic sequencing methods to compare the 2022 virus to variants from a 2017 outbreak in Nigeria as well as from localized outbreaks in 1965 and 1970, according to a press release from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

None of the previous monkeypox variants spread beyond their place of origin in Africa, the press release said..

The team’s research revealed 25 mutations, 14 of which appear to change protein function and bear further research, said Ussery, a professor in the College of Medicine Department of Biomedical Informatics and director of the Arkansas Center for Genomic and Epidemiology Medicine at UAMS.

“At least one of the differences we found could be responsible for why the current virus is causing a pandemic while past strains of monkeypox viruses did not,” he said.

The team’s article notes that the current monkeypox virus outbreak is not only the largest known outbreak to date, the infections result in much different clinical and epidemiological features compared to previous outbreaks.

The article is co-authored by Visanu Wanchai, postdoctoral fellow, UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biomedical Informatics, and Trudy Wassenaar, a UAMS genomics consultant and frequent collaborator.

In July, the World Health Organization declared the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency.

While the virus is not usually lethal, its genetic makeup is strikingly similar to smallpox, Ussery said, so health officials and researchers are monitoring it closely. Smallpox killed an estimated 300–500 million people in the 20th century before a vaccine campaign eradicated the virus by 1979.

“Monkeypox is 99.5% identical to smallpox,” Ussery said. “It is so closely related that if you are old enough to have been vaccinated for smallpox, you are likely protected against monkeypox.”

Ussery’s work is supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the UAMS Translational Research Institute, which is funded by the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; the National Science Foundation; and the Arkansas Research Alliance.