Viruses are more common than you think, and a breakthrough in testing technology reveals that doctors have been missing the majority of them for a long time.
Viruses are known for their ability to spread and mutate to withstand medical treatments, but researchers believe they have devised a test that will remain one step ahead of viruses. According to a report from UPI, scientists have developed a new test that can detect virtually any known virus in humans and animals, even if a doctor isn’t specifically looking for it.
The test is called ViroCap, and will likely enter extensive clinical trials very soon. Scientists and doctors will be able to get their hands on the technology, however, as it continues developing.
According to Dr. Gregory Storch, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis, doctors won’t need to know what they’re looking for when they use the new test. It searches for telltale signs from viruses even when they exist in the body at extremely low levels. It has many applications in situations where doctors struggle to make a diagnosis even after running through the list of available diagnostics. It would also be useful to help determine the cause of an outbreak.
The scientists generated a panel with RNA and DNA sequences of viruses from 34 different organism families, which proved to be just as sensitive as standard polymerase chain reaction, or PCR tests. The catch with the new test is that it can detect all of the viruses present in a sample at once, a feat never before achieved by a traditional virus test. The new test can also detect slight variations of more common viruses, which can clue doctors into stowaway viral infections that may have eluded preliminary screens.
Researchers put the new ViroCap test up to scrutiny against traditional PCR tests. The PCR tests detected viruses in 10 out of 14 patients tested. ViroCap, however, was able to detect the virus in the four individuals that PCR testing failed to find. The viruses in the test were all relatively common, including influenza B, which leads to the seasonal flu, parechovirus, which affects the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, herpes virus 1, which causes oral cold sores, and varicella-zoster virus, best known for causing the chicken pox.
In a separate test, a group of children with mysterious fevers were tested with the two different tools to see which one was more effective. Again, the PCR tests were able to detect 11 different viruses in eight children, which is really not a bad rate. ViroCap, however, found 7 additional viruses, even the notoriously harmless respiratory virus known as adenovirus B type 3A, which on rare occasions can cause severe infections.
Based on preliminary tests, the ViroCap test was shown to have a 52 percent higher success rate than the traditional polymerase chain reaction virus screens. Virocap was ale to detect 32 different viruses, compared to PCR’s 21.
According to Todd Wylie, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University, the test is even sensitive enough to detect different strains of the same virus, despite their genetic similarities. Currently available tests have trouble pointing out slight genetic variations between viral strains, which wind up causing problems for physicians looking for the best course of treatment for a patient suffering from an unknown illness.
Researchers developed the test by targeting unique portions of DNA and RNA from every known virus group that has been recorded in humans and animals. Altogether, the study included 2 million distinct chunks of genetic information from the viruses studied. These stretches were then compared against blood samples from patients in an effort to find a match. When doctors find a match, ViroCap analyzes the virus with high-throughput genetic sequencing to determine exactly which virus it is.
The secret behind the test is its detailed genetic information on various strains of common viruses. Because of this, it is easy for engineers to devise a way to identify different subtypes of the virus. The study revealed, for example, that while standard diagnostics were able to identify a virus as influenza A, which is widely regarded as one of the largest causes of the seasonal flu. The new ViroCap test, however, was able to know that the strain of virus detected was actually a subtype called H3N2. And that’s a good thing, because this particular strain has a reputation for causing a nasty flu.
The H3N2 strain of influenza A contributed to nearly 36,000 deaths in the United States alone last flu season. Being able to know what strain of flu a patient has could mean the difference between life and death in vulnerable patients like the elderly and small children.
The study was published in the latest edition of the journal Genome Research. The researchers involved plan to continue fine-tuning the test to verify that its preliminary performance was accurate, and will begin large-scale clinical trials soon. The technology behind the test will be made available to the public so that other researchers and doctors could improve it and even find new uses for it.