Bulletin: A Test Tells the Tale

Using a single drop of blood, a new test can detect antibodies against more than 200 species
of virus, including this influenza virus.

Photograph courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

A Test Tells the Tale

One drop of blood reveals a history of viral infection.

Stephen Elledge and his research team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have developed a technique that will allow doctors to learn about a patient’s entire viral infection history from just a single drop of his or her blood.

The technique, called VirScan, is a giant leap forward from current tests designed to hunt for individual viruses. VirScan, which costs only $25, searches for all 206 species of viruses known to infect humans. Evaluated in more than 500 people on four continents, the test is proving beneficial in both health care and medical research.

With a more thorough patient clinical history, a doctor can make better treatment decisions. “You could go to the doctor once a year and get all your viruses checked,” says Elledge, an HHMI investigator. “It’s cheap to do it, it’s routine, and your doctor might pick up on new infections … before they do a lot of damage.”

Stephen Elledge describes what his team’s new technology, called VirScan, is revealing about human immunology and disease. Video: Stephanie Dutchen, Harvard Medical School

Knowing patient viral infection histories can also help scientists studying diseases understand associations previously unknown to them. “We have an ability to now ask, ‘Okay, what about autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes,’” says Elledge. “Is there an association between that disease and a particular type of viral infection?”

VirScan works by exploiting the fact that we have memories of past viral infections floating in our blood – immune particles that will attack a given virus if it decides to return. The test introduces a host of virus-mimicking molecules into a patient’s blood sample to see which ones elicit a response. If a particular virus molecule is attacked, it is likely the person was exposed to that virus in the past. The team published details of the test on June 5, 2015, in Science.

Elledge thinks VirScan might see its greatest potential in developing countries, where doctors could use the test to track the extent of new viral epidemics in entire populations.