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  1. Chook JB, Teo WL, Ngeow YF, Tee KK, Ng KP, Mohamed R
    J. Clin. Microbiol., 2015 Jun;53(6):1831-5.
    PMID: 25788548 DOI: 10.1128/JCM.03449-14
    Hepatitis B virus (HBV) has been divided into 10 genotypes, A to J, based on an 8% nucleotide sequence divergence between genotypes. The conventional practice of using a single set of primers to amplify a near-complete HBV genome is hampered by its low analytical sensitivity. The current practice of using overlapping conserved primer sets to amplify a complete HBV genome in a clinical sample is limited by the lack of pan-primers to detect all HBV genotypes. In this study, we designed six highly conserved, overlapping primer sets to cover the complete HBV genome. We based our design on the sequences of 5,154 HBV genomes of genotypes A to I downloaded from the GenBank nucleotide database. These primer sets were tested on 126 plasma samples from Malaysia, containing genotypes A to D and with viral loads ranging from 20 to >79,780,000 IU/ml. The overall success rates for PCR amplification and sequencing were >96% and >94%, respectively. Similarly, there was 100% amplification and sequencing success when the primer sets were tested on an HBV reference panel of genotypes A to G. Thus, we have established primer sets that gave a high analytical sensitivity for PCR-based detection of HBV and a high rate of sequencing success for HBV genomes in most of the viral genotypes, if not all, without prior known sequence data for the particular genotype/genome.
  2. Chook JB, Ong LY, Takebe Y, Chan KG, Choo M, Kamarulzaman A, et al.
    Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg., 2015 Mar;92(3):507-512.
    PMID: 25535315 DOI: 10.4269/ajtmh.14-0681
    A molecular genotyping assay for human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) circulating in Southeast Asia is difficult to design because of the high level of genetic diversity. We developed a multiplex real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay to detect subtype B, CRF01_AE, CRF33_01B, and three newly described circulating recombinant forms, (CRFs) (CRF53_01B, CRF54_01B, and CRF58_01B). A total of 785 reference genomes were used for subtype-specific primers and TaqMan probes design targeting the gag, pol, and env genes. The performance of this assay was compared and evaluated with direct sequencing and phylogenetic analysis. A total of 180 HIV-infected subjects from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia were screened and 171 samples were successfully genotyped, in agreement with the phylogenetic data. The HIV-1 genotype distribution was as follows: subtype B (16.7%); CRF01_AE (52.8%); CRF33_01B (24.4%); CRF53_01B (1.1%); CRF54_01B (0.6%); and CRF01_AE/B unique recombinant forms (4.4%). The overall accuracy of the genotyping assay was over 95.0%, in which the sensitivities for subtype B, CRF01_AE, and CRF33_01B detection were 100%, 100%, and 97.7%, respectively. The specificity of genotyping was 100%, inter-subtype specificities were > 95% and the limit of detection of 10(3) copies/mL for plasma. The newly developed real-time PCR assay offers a rapid and cost-effective alternative for large-scale molecular epidemiological surveillance for HIV-1.
  3. Chook JB, Ngeow YF, Khang TF, Ng KP, Tiang YP, Mohamed R
    J. Med. Virol., 2013 Mar;85(3):419-24.
    PMID: 23297244 DOI: 10.1002/jmv.23500
    Infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) may lead to an acute or chronic infection. It is generally accepted that the clinical outcome of infection depends on the balance between host immunity and viral survival strategies. In order to persist, the virus needs to have a high rate of replication and some immune-escape capabilities. Hence, HBVs lacking these properties are likely to be eliminated more rapidly by the host, leading to a lower rate of chronicity. To test this hypothesis, 177 HBV genomes from acute non-fulminant cases and 1,149 from chronic cases were retrieved from GenBank for comparative analysis. Selection of candidate nucleotides associated with the disease state was done using random guess cut-off and the Bonferroni correction. Five significant nucleotides were detected using this filtering step. Their predictive values were assessed using the support vector machine classification with five-fold cross-validation. The average prediction accuracy was 61% ± 1%, with a sensitivity of 24% ± 1%, specificity of 98% ± 1%, positive predictive value of 92% ± 4% and negative predictive value of 56% ± 1%. BCP/X, enhancer I and surface/polymerase variants were found to be associated almost exclusively with acute hepatitis. These HBV variants are novel potential markers for non-progression to chronic hepatitis.
  4. Chook JB, Ngeow YF, Yap SF, Tan TC, Mohamed R
    J. Med. Virol., 2011 Apr;83(4):594-601.
    PMID: 21328372 DOI: 10.1002/jmv.22016
    Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and high liver iron deposits have both been associated with the development of cirrhosis. Among HBV factors, genotype and mutations in the basal core promoter (BCP) and precore regions have been most frequently studied but the evidence for a positive association with cirrhosis has been inconsistent. In this study, sera from persons with chronic HBV infection with and without cirrhosis were used for whole HBV genome analysis and for the estimation of serum iron marker (serum iron or ferritin) levels. Single codon analysis showed that the precore wild-type, TGG (nt 1,895-1,897), gave the highest accuracy (77.5%) for the identification of cirrhosis compared to other codons. When TGG was analyzed together with the precore start codon wild-type, ATG (nt 1,814-1,816), the accuracy was improved to 80.0% (odds ratio=35.29; 95% confidence interval=3.87-321.93; Phi=0.629; P<0.001). When the serum iron marker was included for analysis, it was clear that a combination of a precore wild-type and high serum iron marker gave a better accuracy (90.0%) (odds ratio=107.67; 95% confidence interval=10.21-1,135.59; Phi=0.804; P<0.001) for the identification of cirrhosis than either biomarker alone. It appeared that a combined use of both these biomarkers might help to predict the development of cirrhosis in a person with chronic HBV infection, but longitudinal studies are required to test this hypothesis.
  5. Chook JB, Ngeow YF, Tee KK, Peh SC, Mohamed R
    J Pathog, 2017;2017:1231204.
    PMID: 29410920 DOI: 10.1155/2017/1231204
    Fulminant hepatitis (FH) is a life-threatening liver disease characterised by intense immune attack and massive liver cell death. The common precore stop codon mutation of hepatitis B virus (HBV), A1896, is frequently associated with FH, but lacks specificity. This study attempts to uncover all possible viral nucleotides that are specifically associated with FH through a compiled sequence analysis of FH and non-FH cases from acute infection. We retrieved 67 FH and 280 acute non-FH cases of hepatitis B from GenBank and applied support vector machine (SVM) model to seek candidate nucleotides highly predictive of FH. Six best candidates with top predictive accuracy, 92.5%, were used to build a SVM model; they are C2129 (85.3%), T720 (83.0%), Y2131 (82.4%), T2013 (82.1%), K2048 (82.1%), and A2512 (82.1%). This model gave a high specificity (99.3%), positive predictive value (95.6%), and negative predictive value (92.1%), but only moderate sensitivity (64.2%). We successfully built a SVM model comprising six variants that are highly predictive and specific for FH: four in the core region and one each in the polymerase and the surface regions. These variants indicate that intracellular virion/core retention could play an important role in the progression to FH.
  6. Al-Khannaq MN, Ng KT, Oong XY, Pang YK, Takebe Y, Chook JB, et al.
    Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg., 2016 05 04;94(5):1058-64.
    PMID: 26928836 DOI: 10.4269/ajtmh.15-0810
    The human alphacoronaviruses HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-229E are commonly associated with upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). Information on their molecular epidemiology and evolutionary dynamics in the tropical region of southeast Asia however is limited. Here, we analyzed the phylogenetic, temporal distribution, population history, and clinical manifestations among patients infected with HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-229E. Nasopharyngeal swabs were collected from 2,060 consenting adults presented with acute URTI symptoms in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2012 and 2013. The presence of HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-229E was detected using multiplex polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The spike glycoprotein, nucleocapsid, and 1a genes were sequenced for phylogenetic reconstruction and Bayesian coalescent inference. A total of 68/2,060 (3.3%) subjects were positive for human alphacoronavirus; HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-229E were detected in 45 (2.2%) and 23 (1.1%) patients, respectively. A peak in the number of HCoV-NL63 infections was recorded between June and October 2012. Phylogenetic inference revealed that 62.8% of HCoV-NL63 infections belonged to genotype B, 37.2% was genotype C, while all HCoV-229E sequences were clustered within group 4. Molecular dating analysis indicated that the origin of HCoV-NL63 was dated to 1921, before it diverged into genotype A (1975), genotype B (1996), and genotype C (2003). The root of the HCoV-229E tree was dated to 1955, before it diverged into groups 1-4 between the 1970s and 1990s. The study described the seasonality, molecular diversity, and evolutionary dynamics of human alphacoronavirus infections in a tropical region.
  7. Al-Khannaq MN, Ng KT, Oong XY, Pang YK, Takebe Y, Chook JB, et al.
    Virol. J., 2016 Feb 25;13:33.
    PMID: 26916286 DOI: 10.1186/s12985-016-0488-4
    BACKGROUND: Despite the worldwide circulation of human coronavirus OC43 (HCoV-OC43) and HKU1 (HCoV-HKU1), data on their molecular epidemiology and evolutionary dynamics in the tropical Southeast Asia region is lacking.
    METHODS: The study aimed to investigate the genetic diversity, temporal distribution, population history and clinical symptoms of betacoronavirus infections in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia between 2012 and 2013. A total of 2,060 adults presented with acute respiratory symptoms were screened for the presence of betacoronaviruses using multiplex PCR. The spike glycoprotein, nucleocapsid and 1a genes were sequenced for phylogenetic reconstruction and Bayesian coalescent inference.
    RESULTS: A total of 48/2060 (2.4 %) specimens were tested positive for HCoV-OC43 (1.3 %) and HCoV-HKU1 (1.1 %). Both HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-HKU1 were co-circulating throughout the year, with the lowest detection rates reported in the October-January period. Phylogenetic analysis of the spike gene showed that the majority of HCoV-OC43 isolates were grouped into two previously undefined genotypes, provisionally assigned as novel lineage 1 and novel lineage 2. Sign of natural recombination was observed in these potentially novel lineages. Location mapping showed that the novel lineage 1 is currently circulating in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and China, while novel lineage 2 can be found in Malaysia and China. Molecular dating showed the origin of HCoV-OC43 around late 1950s, before it diverged into genotypes A (1960s), B (1990s), and other genotypes (2000s). Phylogenetic analysis revealed that 27.3 % of the HCoV-HKU1 strains belong to genotype A while 72.7 % belongs to genotype B. The tree root of HCoV-HKU1 was similar to that of HCoV-OC43, with the tMRCA of genotypes A and B estimated around the 1990s and 2000s, respectively. Correlation of HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-HKU1 with the severity of respiratory symptoms was not observed.
    CONCLUSIONS: The present study reported the molecular complexity and evolutionary dynamics of human betacoronaviruses among adults with acute respiratory symptoms in a tropical country. Two novel HCoV-OC43 genetic lineages were identified, warranting further investigation on their genotypic and phenotypic characteristics.
    Study site: Primary Care Clinic, University Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  8. Ng KT, Takebe Y, Chook JB, Chow WZ, Chan KG, Abed Al-Darraji HA, et al.
    Sci Rep, 2015;5:15198.
    PMID: 26459957 DOI: 10.1038/srep15198
    Co-infections with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) and human pegivirus (HPgV) are common in hepatitis C virus (HCV)-infected individuals. However, analysis on the evolutionary dynamics and transmission network profiles of these viruses among individuals with multiple infections remains limited. A total of 228 injecting drug users (IDUs), either HCV- and/or HIV-1-infected, were recruited in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. HCV, HIV-1 and HPgV genes were sequenced, with epidemic growth rates assessed by the Bayesian coalescent method. Based on the sequence data, mono-, dual- and triple-infection were detected in 38.8%, 40.6% and 20.6% of the subjects, respectively. Fifteen transmission networks involving HCV (subtype 1a, 1b, 3a and 3b), HIV-1 (CRF33_01B) and HPgV (genotype 2) were identified and characterized. Genealogical estimates indicated that the predominant HCV, HIV-1 and HPgV genotypes were introduced into the IDUs population through multiple sub-epidemics that emerged as early as 1950s (HCV), 1980s (HIV-1) and 1990s (HPgV). By determining the difference in divergence times between viral lineages (ΔtMRCA), we also showed that the frequency of viral co-transmission is low among these IDUs. Despite increased access to therapy and other harm reduction interventions, the continuous emergence and coexistence of new transmission networks suggest persistent multiple viral transmissions among IDUs.
  9. Cheong HT, Chow WZ, Takebe Y, Chook JB, Chan KG, Al-Darraji HA, et al.
    PLoS ONE, 2015;10(7):e0133883.
    PMID: 26196131 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0133883
    In many parts of Southeast Asia, the HIV-1 epidemic has been driven by the sharing of needles and equipment among intravenous drug users (IDUs). Over the last few decades, many studies have proven time and again that the diversity of HIV-1 epidemics can often be linked to the route of infection transmission. That said, the diversity and complexity of HIV-1 molecular epidemics in the region have been increasing at an alarming rate, due in part to the high tendency of the viral RNA to recombine. This scenario was exemplified by the discovery of numerous circulating recombinant forms (CRFs), especially in Thailand and Malaysia. In this study, we characterized a novel CRF designated CRF74_01B, which was identified in six epidemiologically unlinked IDUs in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The near-full length genomes were composed of CRF01_AE and subtype B', with eight breakpoints dispersed in the gag-pol and nef regions. Remarkably, this CRF shared four and two recombination hotspots with the previously described CRF33_01B and the less prevalent CRF53_01B, respectively. Genealogy-based Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of CRF74_01B genomic regions showed that it is closely related to both CRF33_01B and CRF53_01B. This observation suggests that CRF74_01B was probably a direct descendent from specific lineages of CRF33_01B, CRF53_01B and subtype B' that could have emerged in the mid-1990s. Additionally, it illustrated the active recombination processes between prevalent HIV-1 subtypes and recombinants in Malaysia. In summary, we report a novel HIV-1 genotype designated CRF74_01B among IDUs in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The characterization of the novel CRF74_01B is of considerable significance towards the understanding of the genetic diversity and population dynamics of HIV-1 circulating in the region.
  10. Cheong HT, Ng KT, Ong LY, Chook JB, Chan KG, Takebe Y, et al.
    PLoS ONE, 2014;9(10):e111236.
    PMID: 25340817 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111236
    A novel HIV-1 recombinant clade (CRF51_01B) was recently identified among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Singapore. As cases of sexually transmitted HIV-1 infection increase concurrently in two socioeconomically intimate countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, cross transmission of HIV-1 between said countries is highly probable. In order to investigate the timeline for the emergence of HIV-1 CRF51_01B in Singapore and its possible introduction into Malaysia, 595 HIV-positive subjects recruited in Kuala Lumpur from 2008 to 2012 were screened. Phylogenetic relationship of 485 amplified polymerase gene sequences was determined through neighbour-joining method. Next, near-full length sequences were amplified for genomic sequences inferred to be CRF51_01B and subjected to further analysis implemented through Bayesian Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) sampling and maximum likelihood methods. Based on the near full length genomes, two isolates formed a phylogenetic cluster with CRF51_01B sequences of Singapore origin, sharing identical recombination structure. Spatial and temporal information from Bayesian MCMC coalescent and maximum likelihood analysis of the protease, gp120 and gp41 genes suggest that Singapore is probably the country of origin of CRF51_01B (as early as in the mid-1990s) and featured a Malaysian who acquired the infection through heterosexual contact as host for its ancestral lineages. CRF51_01B then spread rapidly among the MSM in Singapore and Malaysia. Although the importation of CRF51_01B from Singapore to Malaysia is supported by coalescence analysis, the narrow timeframe of the transmission event indicates a closely linked epidemic. Discrepancies in the estimated divergence times suggest that CRF51_01B may have arisen through multiple recombination events from more than one parental lineage. We report the cross transmission of a novel CRF51_01B lineage between countries that involved different sexual risk groups. Understanding the cross-border transmission of HIV-1 involving sexual networks is crucial for effective intervention strategies in the region.
  11. Ng KT, Chook JB, Oong XY, Chan YF, Chan KG, Hanafi NS, et al.
    Sci Rep, 2016 10 10;6:34855.
    PMID: 27721388 DOI: 10.1038/srep34855
    Human rhinovirus (HRV) is the major aetiology of respiratory tract infections. HRV viral load assays are available but limitations that affect accurate quantification exist. We developed a one-step Taqman assay using oligonucleotides designed based on a comprehensive list of global HRV sequences. The new oligonucleotides targeting the 5'-UTR region showed high PCR efficiency (E = 99.6%, R2 = 0.996), with quantifiable viral load as low as 2 viral copies/μl. Assay evaluation using an External Quality Assessment (EQA) panel yielded a detection rate of 90%. When tested on 315 human enterovirus-positive specimens comprising at least 84 genetically distinct HRV types/serotypes (determined by the VP4/VP2 gene phylogenetic analysis), the assay detected all HRV species and types, as well as other non-polio enteroviruses. A commercial quantification kit, which failed to detect any of the EQA specimens, produced a detection rate of 13.3% (42/315) among the clinical specimens. Using the improved assay, we showed that HRV sheds in the upper respiratory tract for more than a week following acute infection. We also showed that HRV-C had a significantly higher viral load at 2-7 days after the onset of symptoms (p = 0.001). The availability of such assay is important to facilitate disease management, antiviral development, and infection control.
  12. Oong XY, Ng KT, Takebe Y, Ng LJ, Chan KG, Chook JB, et al.
    Emerg Microbes Infect, 2017 Jan 04;6(1):e3.
    PMID: 28050020 DOI: 10.1038/emi.2016.132
    Human coronavirus OC43 (HCoV-OC43) is commonly associated with respiratory tract infections in humans, with five genetically distinct genotypes (A to E) described so far. In this study, we obtained the full-length genomes of HCoV-OC43 strains from two previously unrecognized lineages identified among patients presenting with severe upper respiratory tract symptoms in a cross-sectional molecular surveillance study in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2012 and 2013. Phylogenetic, recombination and comparative genomic analyses revealed two distinct clusters diverging from a genotype D-like common ancestor through recombination with a putative genotype A-like lineage in the non-structural protein (nsp) 10 gene. Signature amino acid substitutions and a glycine residue insertion at the N-terminal domain of the S1 subunit of the spike gene, among others, exhibited further distinction in a recombination pattern, to which these clusters were classified as genotypes F and G. The phylogeographic mapping of the global spike gene indicated that the genetically similar HCoV-OC43 genotypes F and G strains were potentially circulating in China, Japan, Thailand and Europe as early as the late 2000s. The transmission network construction based on the TN93 pairwise genetic distance revealed the emergence and persistence of multiple sub-epidemic clusters of the highly prevalent genotype D and its descendant genotypes F and G, which contributed to the spread of HCoV-OC43 in the region. Finally, a more consistent nomenclature system for non-recombinant and recombinant HCoV-OC43 lineages is proposed, taking into account genetic recombination as an important feature in HCoV evolution and classification.
  13. Ng KT, Oong XY, Lim SH, Chook JB, Takebe Y, Chan YF, et al.
    Clin. Infect. Dis., 2018 Jan 29.
    PMID: 29385423 DOI: 10.1093/cid/ciy063
    Background: Rhinovirus (RV) is one of the main viral etiologic agents of acute respiratory illnesses. Despite the heightened disease burden caused by RV, the viral factors that increase the severity of RV infection, the transmission pattern and seasonality of RV infections remain unclear.

    Methods: An observational study was conducted among 3,935 patients presenting with acute upper respiratory illnesses in the ambulatory settings between 2012 and 2014.

    Results: The VP4/VP2 gene was genotyped from all 976 RV-positive specimens, where the predominance of RV-A (49%) was observed, followed by RV-C (38%) and RV-B (13%). A significant regression in median nasopharyngeal viral load (p<0.001) was observed; from 883 viral copies/µl at 1-2 days after symptoms onset to 312 viral copies/µl at 3-4 days and 158 viral copies/µl at 5-7 days, before declining to 35 viral copies/µl at ≥ 8 days. In comparison with RV-A (median viral load: 217 copies/µl) and -B (275 copies/µl), RV-C-infected subjects produced higher viral load (505 copies/µl; p<0.001). Importantly, higher RV viral load (median: 348 copies/µl) was associated with more severe respiratory symptoms (TSSS ≥ 17, p=0.017). A total of 83 phylogenetic-based transmission clusters were identified in the population. It was observed that the relative humidity was the strongest environmental predictor of RV seasonality in the tropical climate.

    Conclusions: Our findings underlined the role of viral load in increasing disease severity attributed to RV-C infection, and unraveled the factors that fuel the population transmission dynamics of RV.
  14. Oong XY, Chook JB, Ng KT, Chow WZ, Chan KG, Hanafi NS, et al.
    Virol. J., 2018 05 23;15(1):91.
    PMID: 29792212 DOI: 10.1186/s12985-018-1005-8
    BACKGROUND: Human metapneumovirus (HMPV) is established as one of the causative agents of respiratory tract infections. To date, there are limited reports that describe the effect of HMPV genotypes and/or viral load on disease pathogenesis in adults. This study aims to determine the role of HMPV genetic diversity and nasopharyngeal viral load on symptom severity in outpatient adults with acute respiratory tract infections.
    METHODS: Severity of common cold symptoms of patients from a teaching hospital was assessed by a four-category scale and summed to obtain the total symptom severity score (TSSS). Association between the fusion and glycoprotein genes diversity, viral load (quantified using an improved RT-qPCR assay), and symptom severity were analyzed using bivariate and linear regression analyses.
    RESULTS: Among 81/3706 HMPV-positive patients, there were no significant differences in terms of demographics, number of days elapsed between symptom onset and clinic visit, respiratory symptoms manifestation and severity between different HMPV genotypes/sub-lineages. Surprisingly, elderly patients (≥65 years old) had lower severity of symptoms (indicated by TSSS) than young and middle age adults (p = 0.008). Nasopharyngeal viral load did not correlate with nor predict symptom severity of HMPV infection. Interestingly, at 3-5 days after symptom onset, genotype A-infected patients had higher viral load compared to genotype B (4.4 vs. 3.3 log10 RNA copies/μl) (p = 0.003).
    CONCLUSIONS: Overall, HMPV genetic diversity and viral load did not impact symptom severity in adults with acute respiratory tract infections. Differences in viral load dynamics over time between genotypes may have important implications on viral transmission.
    Study site: Primary Care Clinic, University of Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
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