New technology called VirScan developed by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) researchers makes it possible to test for current and past infections with any known human virus by analyzing a single drop of a person’s blood. With VirScan, scientists can run a single test to determine which viruses have infected an individual, rather than limiting their analysis to particular viruses. That unbiased approach could uncover unexpected factors affecting individual patients’ health, and also expands opportunities to analyze and compare viral infections in large populations.
The comprehensive analysis can be performed for about $25 per blood sample, but the test is currently being used only as a research tool and is not yet commercially available. Stephen J. Elledge, an HHMI investigator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, led the development of VirScan. He and his colleagues have already used VirScan to screen the blood of 569 people in the United States, South Africa, Thailand, and Peru. The scientists described the new technology and reported their findings in the June 5, 2015, issue of the journal Science. VirScan works by screening the blood for antibodies against any of the 206 species of viruses known to infect humans*. The immune system ramps up production of pathogen-specific antibodies when it encounters a virus for the first time, and it can continue to produce those antibodies for years or decades after it clears an infection. That means VirScan not only identifies viral infections that the immune system is actively fighting, but also provides a history of an individual’s past infections.