Viral fingerprinting to combat deadly viruses

20170518070000, Mak Wen Yao 
Viral fingerprints
The discovery of viral fingerprints and the development of a rapid and high-throughput viral scan have led to exciting possibilities in health screening and research.
When one contracts a virus infection, the pathogens can linger inside the body for a prolonged period. More importantly, the interaction between the invading viruses and our host immune system is complex and comes with lasting consequences.

Interplay between viruses and hosts

The human virome – a collection of viruses that had infected the individuals – was discovered to leave an “indelible footprint on the immune system”. These viruses, by invading the human body, will alter the host's immune system and leave behind a variety of antibodies – each specifically produced to target unique viruses. Research has shown that these antibodies will remain in the host years after the initial acute infection, and constitute a distinctive pattern very much like our fingerprints.

In recent years, scientists have also discovered that these viral fingerprints could be recovered from human bones. Human bones are most likely to be preserved when the body is exposed to various hostile climatic conditions.

As it turns out, a group of researchers from the University of Helsinki and the University of Edinburgh had successfully recovered viral DNA from the bony remains of World War II soldiers. The virus DNA belonged to a type of parvovirus and was not generally found in the Nordic countries where the bones were found.

By understanding the typical virus geographical distribution during the WWII period and the human DNA profile of the soldiers, the team believed that soldiers were most likely members of the Red Army.

Limited speed

The myriad of viral screening tests today mostly focuses on detecting a single pathogen at any one time. There are multiple methods at the disposal of a skilled doctor to detect the presence of harmful viruses. Some of these ways include checking for complementary antibodies that are produced to fight a specific infection, viral antigen tests to look for unique antigens representative of certain viruses and viral DNA or RNA tests to look for viral genetic materials.

Nonetheless, all these tests are limited by the slow speed and relatively limited data that is generated. Moreover, the choice of tests is heavily dependent on the clinical judgement of the attending doctor.

High-throughput viral scan

The prospect of scanning the complete human virome of a patient to provide more data for doctors to work with is appealing. Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) had developed a viral scan, named VirScan – a method capable of high-speed identification of current or past infections of any known human viruses.

Their database contains genetic information of 206 species of virus and over 1,000 different strains. The study team also claimed that VirScan is capable to “achieve sensitive detection” of viruses, and “demonstrates excellent serological discrimination among similar virus species”.

The cost of running such comprehensive viral tests is equally impressive. The research team stated that they have successfully driven down the cost to $25 per blood sample– making it an attractive option for large-scale population screening for viral outbreaks. Nonetheless, VirScan is currently used solely for research purposes and not available commercially.

Future Outlook

The discovery of viral fingerprints and the development of a rapid and high-throughput viral scan have led to exciting possibilities in health screening and research. Although not publicly available, VirScan represents a powerful tool to study the complex interaction between virome and our immune system. With hope and good faith, this may tip the balance in our fight against these deadly viruses. MIMS

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