Local Researchers Developed a Blood Test that Detects Exposure to Hundreds of Viruses Simultaneously

It's called the VirScan, and it can reveal your viral history with one drop of blood.

In what could be every hypochondriac’s worst nightmare, there is now a test that can find out—from just a single drop of blood—every virus you’ve ever had in your life. Ever.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Harvard Medical School have created a new method known as VirScan, which can simultaneously test for more than 1,000 different strains of viruses that have previously infected a person. The test can also tell what viruses you currently have.

A corresponding study will be published Friday, June 5 in the journal, Science.

“VirScan is a little like looking back in time: using this method, we can take a tiny drop of blood and determine what viruses a person has been infected with over the course of many years,” said the study’s corresponding author and principal investigator in the Division of Genetics at BWH, Stephen Elledge, PhD. “What makes this so unique is the scale: right now, a physician needs to guess what virus might be at play and individually test for it. With VirScan, we can look for virtually all viruses, even rare ones, with a single test.”

Why is this necessary? According to BWH, classic blood tests—known as ELISA assays—can only detect one pathogen at a time and have not been developed against all viruses, which limits how useful these tests actually are.

According to BWH:

In the new study, Elledge and his colleagues tested blood samples from almost 600 people from Peru, the United States, South Africa and Thailand. The team developed and used a library of peptides – short protein fragments derived from viruses – representing more than 1,000 viral strains to find evidence of previous viral exposure. Rates of viral exposure varied by age, geographic location and HIV status, but the team found that a small number of peptides were recognized by the vast majority of people’s immune systems. This pattern, suggesting that the immune systems of many individuals are hitting upon the same protein portion in a virus, could have important implications for understanding immunity.

VirScan may also help researchers find correlations between previous exposure to a particular virus and the development of a disease later in life. A connection between Epstein-Barr virus – one of the most common viruses seen in this study – and the risk of certain kinds of cancer is already known. The new method may help reveal other as-yet-unknown connections.

The team at BWH says that the cost of the VirScan is only around $25, but two tests are typically run per person.

“A viral infection can leave behind an indelible footprint on the immune system,” Elledge said. “Having a simple, reproducible method like VirScan may help us generate new hypotheses and understand the interplay between the virome and the host’s immune system, with implications for a variety of diseases.”