Ever wonder what viruses still linger in your body? 

Now, you can find out with a new technology called VirScan. 

With less than a drop of blood, VirScan can identify all of the viruses that you’ve been exposed to throughout your life. 

Details of the technology are outlined in the paper “Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome,” which is summarized in the journal Science.

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Groundbreaking Technology

Stephen J. Elledge, Ph.D., a co-author of the paper and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and at Brigham and Women's Hospital, as well as an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, says the technology is groundbreaking in that it looks for antibodies against all known human viruses at once. Standard diagnostics look at just one virus.

“This means that you can look at viral exposures in an unbiased way without having to suspect a particular infection ahead of time,” he said. “From a personal health standpoint, you could imagine an annual blood test for all viral exposures to try to find infections before they cause symptoms.”

For example, Elledge said, many people are not aware they are infected with the hepatitis C virus, which can cause liver damage and cancer. 

“Often, this is because patients do not show symptoms for many years and so they do not get tested for this particular virus,” Elledge said. “Similarly, our approach could be useful for patients with undiagnosed diseases where it is unclear which viruses to test for.”

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VirScan Uses Peptides to Scan for Viruses

VirScan provides a tool for studying interactions between the collection of viruses known to infect humans, some of which don’t cause symptoms, and the immune system, which can be altered permanently by viral exposure. 

Elledge and his colleagues tested VirScan on 569 people from around the world and found that, on average, the participants had been exposed to about 10 viral species throughout their lifetimes. 

Until now, blood tests that measured the amount of viruses based on antibodies released by the immune system have been limited by the number of virus-antibody interactions they could screen for.

To identify a greater number of antibodies, researchers used peptides (naturally occurring biological molecules) from 206 viral species, representing more than 1,000 different viral strains, to create a synthetic representation of all human viral peptides. 

Samples from study participants uncovered more than 106 million peptide-antibody interactions. While most people had been exposed to about 10 viruses, a couple participants had been infected by 84 viral species. 

Researchers suggest that VirScan’s accuracy could be improved with more blood samples. It might also be adapted to study the antibody response to things like bacteria, fungi, and various diseases.

“Viruses may play some role in complex diseases like type 1 diabetes and chronic fatigue syndrome,” Elledge said. “We can look comprehensively for viral exposures that correlate with these kinds of diseases in a way that would be infeasible if you had to test for each virus separately.” 

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