All you need is one drop of blood and $25 and you can get a detailed breakdown of every virus you have ever had. The new test, which was revealed this week, is being hailed as an important new research tool for helping doctors understand diseases.
The study behind the test, which was published in the journal Science, showed how researchers were able to use just a drop of blood to detect past exposure to more than 1,000 strains of viruses from 206 species — that's pretty much all of the viruses that have ever been known to infect a human. The test works by detecting antibodies — specific proteins in the blood that the body produces to fight off a specific virus. Antibodies can linger in the blood for decades after the virus has been cleared from the body. This is what makes it possible for researchers to look at one drop of blood and determine not only which viruses the body is fighting now, but also which viruses have ever infected that person.
Researchers hope to use the information to better track diseases in various parts of the world or in the young versus the old. It could also be used to understand the link between a previous infection with a virus and the future development of chronic diseases or cancer.
For instance, health researchers have theorized that viruses contribute to the development of diseases such as Type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis. Up until now, they have been testing viruses one at a time to prove or disprove this theory. But this new test allows researchers to look at all viruses in an attempt to pinpoint a connection.
"Instead of testing for one individual virus at a time, which is labor intensive, we can assay all of these at once," said Dr Stephen Elledge, of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who was a lead researcher for the study. "It's one-stop shopping."
Another potential use for the test might be to combine it with a new "risk calculator" created by Swedish researchers that determines whether or not a person will die in the next five years. The Ubble Risk Calculator uses a simple questionnaire to determine a person's short-term mortality. Its creators claim that the test has an accuracy rate of about 80 percent. That's pretty spot-on for a basic health questionnaire.
Some of the questions in the assessment seem rather obvious — such as the one that asks if you have ever been diagnosed with cancer. But others, such as your walking pace, or your financial difficulties in the last few years, were less so. And I was surprised that it never asks about diet or exercise.
The calculator uses different questions for men than for women. And it can only be used by folks in the 40-70 year old age range. But its creators say that the information collected gives a pretty accurate prediction of the test-taker's short-term mortality risk. Maybe one day soon they can refine that accuracy rate by also looking at a person's previous exposure to certain viruses.
Then again, that might just be more information than we need to know.
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