University of Pittsburgh researchers’ blood test could benefit HIV screening |
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Wesley Venteicher

University of Pittsburgh researchers have developed a blood test that identifies infectious diseases by mimicking the human body’s immune response to them, a method that one day could identify a person’s entire infectious-disease history and provide new insights into little-known diseases.

The test will take several years to reach doctors’ offices. One of its earliest applications could be to improve tests for autoimmune disorders, said Dr. Donald Burke, dean of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. Burke co-authored a paper on the test that was published last week by the Journal of Immunological Methods.

The researchers tested the method against the HIV virus. They built a library of millions of random synthetic molecular shapes and tested whether each could attach itself to HIV antibodies present in the patient’s blood. Four of the shapes fit the antibodies in HIV-positive blood but not in HIV-negative blood, and one was a particularly effective test of the virus, according to the study results.

“The importance lies not so much in that this is a better HIV test, the importance lies in that this is a better methodology for developing tests,” said Burke.

With a library of 100 million random molecular shapes, known as peptoids, scientists may be able to find some to match any infectious disease, Burke said. The peptoids for each disease could then be combined to create one test for many diseases, he said.

Thomas Kodadek, chair of the Department of Cancer Biology at the Scripps Research Institute, pioneered peptoids to study autoimmune disorders, in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue.

One of the earliest clinical applications for the peptoids is likely to be autoimmune disorder diagnostics, which could come as soon as a couple of years, Burke said.

The method could help in detecting cancer, which the body develops antibodies against. The antibodies don’t kill tumor cells or inhibit the cells’ spread, but the test might be able to spot them, Burke said.

“One possibility is finding antibody markers that say you have a cancer, even before it’s known that it’s a diagnosed cancer,” he said.

Burke speculates the method could be used to learn about emerging new diseases, although it hasn’t yet been used that way. Learning what types of antibodies bind to new antigens could yield information about how the antigens work, potentially speeding the way to cures, he said.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the study.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].

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