New US$25 blood test discovers every virus you’ve ever had

5 Jun 2015

A group of Harvard scientists claim to have developed a cheap, easy blood test that can trace every virus you have ever had.

Whenever a virus infects us, antibodies are produced by our immune system that beat it up and boot it out of our bodies — although not entirely.

What remains after you’ve conquered your measles or chicken pox are those recently-generated antibodies, laying in rest, awaiting their next call to arms.

VirScan, the name of the blood test developed by Stephen Elledge and his team, discovers these little soldiers and documents it, which means it can track all the viruses you’ve ever had – it’s published in Science.

Although, there are problems. Antibodies could eliminate a virus very quickly, before it has grown to sufficient numbers to be retained in the body. Also, vaccines trigger antibodies, which could also be read in this test.

But still, it’s a fascinating project.

Routine screening, blood tests tell all

“A lot of people have hepatitis C, for example, without realising,” says Elledge. You could imagine routinely screening people in this way, he says.

As suggested in New Scientist, mapping past illnesses may not, ultimately, prove this test’s true calling.

Rather, new viruses could be better understood, especially with better understanding of how our body produces antibodies.

Understanding how our immune system responds to other viral fragments might reveal clues as to which family the new virus belongs to, says Pamela Vallely at the University of Manchester, UK.

“If we’d have had this test during the HIV outbreak in the 1980s, it would have given us a clue for where to be looking to find out more about the virus,” she says. “It’s a really exciting technique.”

DNA image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic