Scientists have come up with a diagnostic tool that can screen blood for all viruses you may have encountered over a lifetime. Hopefully it will lead to detection of viruses, which were hiding dormant.

Viruses infect us over our lifetimes. From childhood, smallpox, influenza and measles are common complaints associated with viruses. If a virus attacks the body, it successfully defends using the immune system that produces antibodies. These antibodies continue to circulate in the blood system for years, even decades afterwards and act as a memory trigger for the immune system.

In a study published in the journal Science, scientists from eight different research institutes tested an experimental method for screening blood for every virus a person may have contacted over their lifetime.

Usually when screening for a virus, doctors guess at the likely culprit virus and then look for antibodies that might confirm their diagnosis. This screening is done for one pathogen at a time.

VirScan Could Change All That

VirScan checks the blood for antibodies, which respond to different viruses. The study was done by screening over 500 people from Thailand, Peru and the United States who had been infected with viruses including those of hepatitis C and HIV.

Ben Larman, biomedical scientist at Johns Hopkins University, who helped design the test, says, “For the first time, we’re able to perform an inexpensive full viral scan, instead of testing for viruses one at a time.”

The scientists first compiled a library that included a hundred thousand peptide proteins. These peptides represented a section of the virus recognizable by an antibody. When the proteins are added in blood, antibodies are attached to fragments of the proteins, which match. The researchers can separate the matched antibodies and proteins, and from the combination of their matching, determine the viruses, which infect a particular person. All this can be tested through the antibodies made in the person’s blood stream.

The research team was led by Stephen Elledge of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School said, “The specificity was good. We didn’t falsely identify people who were negative. It gave us confidence that we could detect other viruses and when we did see them we would know they were real.”

The scientists found that on average people had been most commonly affected by 10 different virus species, which included herpes virus (cold sores), rhinovirus (common cold) and enter viruses (upset stomachs) and influenza. At least two people in the trial however had a history of infections from 84 different viruses.

Scientists hope that VirScan will be instrumental in finding out the virus-host relationships in human beings and the effect they could have on the immune system of a person. It may also help in designing vaccines. They hope this test will be made a routine lab test in the future and be able to predict the presence of dormant viruses in people’s system that they were unaware of.