Home Front Page ViroCap virus test could save countless lives

ViroCap virus test could save countless lives

Researchers have developed a highly effective virus test kit that can identify pretty much any virus. This test could eventually help doctors and public health officials get illnesses and outbreaks under control.

"Ebola virus virion" by CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith - Public Health Image Library

It can happen to anyone. Suddenly, you fall seriously ill and are rushed to the hospital. The doctors are perplexed, multiple blood analyzes, PCR tests, and other tests keep turning up negative. The medical bills keep rising, you keep getting sicker. When illnesses are caused by viruses, tiny protein wrapped packages of genetic material, it can be very difficult for doctors to pin down what’s making you sick. And without knowing what’s behind your conditions, doctors can struggle to treat you.

Soon, however, doctors may be able to turn to one single test to identify essentially any and all viruses that might be infecting a patient. Meet the ViroCap, a medical device that could end up being the biggest medical breakthrough in years. Developed by doctors and researchers based at the Washington University in St. Louis, the new super test is able detect nearly any virus found in animals or humans. Even better, doctors don’t even need to know what they are looking for in order for the virus test kit to work.

Best of all, researchers are making the technology behind the test public, hoping that other scientists and researchers will be able to improve the technology and adapt it for new applications. So while the technology is still considered to be years away from the market, the potential impact of this now public technology could be world changing for the medical field.

Dr. Gregory Storch, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis, announced the development of the new and highly advanced test kit in a press release earlier this week. The test kit is still in the early stages of development but already it sounds like something straight out of a science fiction book. The one-size-fits all scanner could shake up the entire virus detection industry.

The ViroCap technology promises to be highly effective, able to detect even low levels of viral presence. Utilizing technology from McDonnell Genome Institute, the test detects viruses with the help of genome sequencing. The university is making the technology publically available to clinics world wide.

Detecting the cause of an illness is essential. When it comes to determining the specific illness being suffered by a patient, hours and even minutes can be the difference between life and death. Further, discovering the outbreak of deadly diseases, like ebola, is essential for public health officials looking to contain the spread of the disease.

What are viruses and why are they so hard to treat?

Viruses are generally considered a sort of inbetween between living organisms and non-living materials. When not attached to a host cell, viruses are completely dormant, lacking any the internal machinery usually associated with life (such as the ability to eat and digest). In order to reproduce, viruses rely completely on other organisms.

Viruses can be exceptionally difficult to treat because viruses can “hide” inside cells, protecting them from potential medicines. Further, the simple nature of viruses makes them less vulnerable to potential medicines. For example, while bacterial cell walls can be destroyed with antibiotics, targeting in on the fast changing, hardy protein packet of a virus is very difficult.

Viruses are exceptionally hard to detect due to their tiny size, and the fact that many of them do not leave as many tell tale of signs as bacteria and other microbes. Often, viruses have to be tested with extremely expensive individual kits. For example, tests for the ebola virus can cost a $1,000 dollars or more per individual test kit. Often, discovering the virus causing an illness can require numerous batteries of tests.

It is also extremely difficult to determine the difference between viruses and bacteria, adding further complications for doctors trying to determine a patient’s illness. Both bacterial and viral diseases display many similar symptoms, such as runny noses, fevers, and coughing.

Over the last hundred years, the two deadliest viral outbreaks were the Spanish flu and HIV. The Spanish Flu, which broke out in 1918, claimed somewhere between 20 and 40 million lives. The HIV epidemic, meanwhile, is believed to have killed off 39 million people. It tooks years for the HIV virus to be determined as the cause of aids. With a test kit like ViroCap, it might have taken only hours or days.

ViroCap could eventually replace PCR tests

Currently, doctors have to rely on polymerase chain reaction to test for most viruses. PCR machines essentially replicate DNA material found from blood and other organic samples. Traditionally, PCR machines were able to test for only one pathogen at once, but recent advances allow for multiple pathogens to be tested at once.

What PCR machines cannot do, however, is test for all viruses at once, something the ViroCap may be able to do. Further PCR machines are inhibitively expensive. Not only do the PCR machines cost tons of money, tens of thousand dollars or more apiece for a professional machine, but the tests themselves are very expensive.

With the ViroCap’s technology having been released to the public, the costs of the machine will likely be driven as low as possible as open innovation improves on the technology. Since the ViroCap will also test for all viruses at once, it will likely be much more cost effective as multiple tests will not need to be conducted.

Early tests have been extremely positive for ViroCap. Through the first tests researchers analyzed a set of 14 patients and their data. A PCR assay was able to find viral infections in ten of the 14 patients, and the ViroCap was able to identify viral infections in the remaining four patients. Early tests indicate that the ViroCap test could be more than 50 percent more effective.

Given how deadly viruses are and how vital proper identification can be for the survival rates among people infected with viruses, the ViroCap could turn out to be a real lifesaver. Viruses are tiny protein coated bits of genetic material that are able to hijack the cells of other organisms, which are then used to reproduce more viruses.

Before the test is deployed on its own, ViroCap will have to undergo extensive testing through clinical trials. So far the test has proven to be quite effective through the laboratory investment stage. If the test proves to be as effective in the real world, it could mark a major medical breakthrough, allowing doctors to hone in on hard to diagnose illnesses.

The key researcher behind the virus test, Dr. Gregory Storch, might be finding himself on the short list for the Nobel Prize and other major awards soon enough. Not only could the test revolutionize healthcare treatment, but Dr. Storch also elected to release his research to the public. Given the potential impact the ViroCap could have on the world, Dr. Storch could quickly find himself on the shortlist for many big prizes. Dr. Storch is one of the world’s leading experts in infectious diseases.