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Virscan: The Next Revolution in Viral Antibody Testing

Scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have recently developed a new serological method, named Virscan, that can determine which viruses an individual has been exposed to during their lifetime. Virscan simultaneously detects antibodies against 206 viral species that are known to infect humans. The comprehensive multi-array analysis can be performed for approximately $25 per specimen. Currently, it is available only as a research test, but it promises to revolutionize serological testing for infectious microorganisms in the clinical laboratory.

HHMI researchers synthesized more than 93,000 segments of DNA that code for different viral proteins. These DNA segments were introduced bacteriophages. Each bacteriophage synthesized and expressed one viral peptide on its surface. Altogether, the bacteriophages displayed all of the peptides present in more than 1000 known strains of human viruses.

To perform the VirScan analysis, peptide-displaying bacteriophages are incubated with a single drop of human blood. Antiviral antibodies in the blood bind to their target epitopes on the bacteriophages. Antibody bound bacteriophages are captured. DNA sequencing of these bacteriophages indicates which viral peptides were bound to antibodies. In this way, an individual’s complete viral serological history, including both vaccination and infection, can be determined.

HHMI researchers used VirScan to analyze the antibodies in 569 people from four countries. On average, each person had antibodies to ten different species of viruses. Adults had more antibodies against more viruses than children. Individuals residing South Africa, Peru, and Thailand had more viral antibodies than people in the United States. People infected with HIV had antibodies against many more viruses than did people without HIV.

If this technology becomes commercially available, it could quickly revolutionize the detection of viral disease in critically ill patients. Simultaneous detection of all viral antibodies would be more efficient than the current practice of testing for individual viruses. Virscan could also be used to document an individual's vaccination status.

George J. Xu et al. Science June 5, 2015;348 (6239): 1105

Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome…

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