An experimental DNA-based blood test called VirScan could determine how viral infections affect autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.
VirScan, developed by George Xu et al, can reveal a person’s viral history through a blood test. This analysis uses less than a drop of blood and screens for antibodies against the 206 virus species known to infect humans.
As the immune system produces antibodies years after an infection passes, VirScan uses these antibodies to create a blueprint of nearly every virus a person has encountered. Experts are confident this could lead to insights into how type 1 diabetes, certain cancers, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases develop.
In a study published in the journal Science, Xu et al reported that initial tests on 569 people across the United States, Peru, Thailand and South Africa detected 10 strains per person, on average. At least two people were reported to have 84 strains.
The researchers observed that people infected with HIV had antibodies against a greater number of virus species, while certain viruses were more commonly observed in adults than in children.
Stephen Elledge, professor of genetics and medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led the development of VirScan, reporting that an analysis can be conducted for $25 per blood sample. This price could increase, however, following commercial availability.
The device has received positive feedback across the scientific community, with Ian Lipki, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, writing: “The approach is clever and a technological tour de force.
“It has the potential to reveal viruses people have encountered recently or many years earlier … Thus, this is a powerful new research tool,” Lipkin added.

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