Viral History in One Drop of Blood

The newspapers of course are blowing the research findings a bit out of proportion.  Baltimore Sun “Drop of blood may disclose person’s whole viral history”, New York Times “Every Virus a Person Has Had Can be Seen in a Drop of Blood, Researchers Find” or the Washington Post “This Blood Test can Tell You Every Virus You’ve Ever Had”

Wow, sounds impressive right? But is you read carefully, it is still impressive, just not as impressive as the headlines make it sound. So here is the deal:

The June 5, 2015 issue of  the journal Science had an article about a new diagnostic test which scans the blood for antibodies to any of 206 virus species and over 1,000 strains that infects people. It is a DNA test that focuses on this specific topic. Although specific might not be the right word here because most diagnostic tests will test for a single pathogen such as HIV.

Research vs. Clinical Use

It is not clear yet how this could be used in a clinical diagnostic setting. Currently it is mostly of interest to researchers. One problem in terms of disease treatment is that antibodies aren’t formed immediately and the build over time. So in some sense you are looking at history and not the present.

For research, scientists are starting to use this test to look and see what viruses people have been exposed to and if that leads to any diseases such as cancers and various chronic diseases due to that exposure.

The test is called VirScan and currently costs about $25. A number of people were tested in the US, Peru, South Africa and Thailand. On average people had been exposed to 10 of the different species although some were much higher. (If you have caught a cold on multiple occasions, and each time it was caused by a different strain of rhinovirus, it will only show up as one infection and one species.)

It was interesting that people in the US had antibodies to a lot fewer viruses than people in the other three countries. It is not known if this is due to genetic differences, different local strains of viruses, cultural differences, sanitation differences or something else.

Where the Headlines are Overblown

The test rarely had false positives and picked up 90% of known infections. But, adults will have been exposed to more than 10 viruses over their lifetime and they aren’t showing up. The immune response fades over time, so this test will pick up more recent infections but it isn’t clear yet how far back it will detect viral infections.

An interesting and unexpected finding was the similarity in the response to different viruses. It was thought that each person responded differently, but it turned out that the antibodies of each person targeted the same amino acids for any given virus. That could lead to new therapies or vaccines.

Cancer in 3D

Incorrect Cancer Knowledge?

Is what we think we know about cancer wrong? Or at least some major assumptions? Probably yes. Since the genome project allowed us to learn so much more about the human genome and perhaps as importantly or more so, bringing down the cost and increasing the speed of tests by many fold, advances are accelerating. They are now finding that all that “junk DNA” that supposedly had no purpose is very important and codes for non-coding RNA that doesn’t make proteins, but control the making of them and many other functions. However, other than the DNA studies, there have been many studies on a more macro level and primarily in petri dishes. This could be a big mistake.

Petri dishes basically create a two dimensional environment for the cancer cells to grow in. The Johns Hopkins Health Review describes research being done at Hopkins by Denis Wirtz on how cancer behaves when it is in a 3D format as it would be in the body.

Zig Zag Path

Cancer cells have been thought to take zigzag path when they move, almost a random pattern. (That isn’t because they used zig zags.) When Dr. Wirtz and his team put cancer cells in a 3D matrix that better replicates the environment in the body, the cancer cells behave very differently. They move in a straight line through the cells. In a petri dish they look flat and tend to adhere to the bottom and have problems moving. In the 3D environment, the cells were rounder and had long protrusions at each end. The proteins that predict is virulence were spread through the cell instead of mostly on the bottom of the cell. They didn’t stick to the bottom of the medium and move slowly. They moved rapidly through the medium and in straight lines.

Bad research and New Life for Drugs?

So a lot of what research has shown to be the behavior of cancers was just caused by the two dimensional environment of the petri dish. Dr. Wirtz thinks that a lot of the research has to be re-examined and possibly thrown out. Of course, other scientists aren’t too pleased with this. He also thinks that drug companies might want to reexamine some of the drugs that failed clinical trials. They might work very differently on cancer cells in a 3D environment.

Kenneth Yamada has also published some important papers on the need to investigate in a 3D environment. He is one of the most cited scientists and has published on a range of topics.

Problems to Solve

Using 3D matrices should help research, but there will be problems too. Scientists sometimes do things because they are easy even though they don’t replicate the in vivo environment. Petri dishes are easy. The problem is that electron microscopy works great in a dish, not so much in a 3D matrix.  Same goes for other important research tools. That problem needs to be resolved.


Most research has been on tumor shrinkage. Why? Once again because it is easy to study and measure. But a big problem with cancer is metastasis, when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. This is still poorly understood but very little research dollars are going toward this. We really need for more money to be put into metastasis research using 3D matrices.

Preventing Nosocomial Infections

Nosocomial Infections – So what is that? Infections picked up in the hospital. Proper cleaning can reduce it, such as wound cleaning, hand cleaning, facilities cleaning such as carpet cleaning, floor cleaning, and any other surface you can think of. It is not a trivial matter. Five to ten percent of all patients get a hospital acquired infection and about 100,000 people die of the complications each year. Continue reading Preventing Nosocomial Infections