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Early illness detection possible with noninvasive test

Posted at 2:07 PM, Nov 29, 2022

Many times, the first we realize we're getting sick is when symptoms show up. New science research is making it possible for people to discover they're getting sick before symptoms appear, allowing for the possibility of faster treatment.

Alec Ford is the CEO of Karius, a life sciences company focused on advancing technology in the fight against infectious diseases. He says it's quite common for people battling cancer to die from a sickness instead of their cancer.

"Actually, more than half of all the people in the United States who die from cancer die from an infection," Ford said.

Ford says he knows from personal experience the threat of infectious disease on patients with cancer.

"To identify the cause of infection with someone in cancer. You might see anywhere from 15 to 17 different tests that are required, and it might take seven to 10 days of running those tests if ever they find the cause of your infection," Ford said.

He says with cancer, time is the enemy, but Karius has developed a rapid test that's been rolling out to hospitals across the country since 2017. Tim Blauwkamp is one of the innovators behind the technology.

"One of the challenges with the way that infectious diseases are diagnosed today is that almost all of the approaches still require a specimen that contains the actual pathogen itself," Blauwkamp said. "Things like bronchoalveolar lavage, where they wash your lungs or find needle aspirates, where they go in and try to find just a little piece of your lung tissue that has enough of the pathogen that they can identify it."

Using a blood sample, Tim Blauwkamp says the Karius test can detect more than a thousand different pathogens like pneumonia, fungal infections, or monkeypox.

"Any time you have an infection, there are fragments of the thing causing that infection that are shed into the bloodstream and we find those,” Ford said. "So, we take your blood, we look for those fragments of the things that are likely to be causing infection, and we tell your doctor why you're sick and what's causing your infection."

Mike Fahey, a monkeypox patient, says the early-detection Karius test would have made a huge difference for him.

"If I had caught it six days earlier, I think my entire prognosis would be different right now," Fahey said.

Fahey says his experience with monkeypox has been rare. He developed encephalitis which is inflammation of the brain. He's had numbness and pain in his hands ever since.

"It has been almost two full months," Fahey said. "To this day, I can't button my shirt, I can't tie my shoes. If I pick something up, I'm likely to drop it."

According to chief technology officer Sivan Bercovici, the Karius test may have detected monkeypox before he even had lesions and he would have been able to start treatment very early on.

"In a paper that we published several years ago, we identified the ability to detect bacterial infections several days before symptoms. In the case of fungal infection, now we can go several weeks before symptoms arise."

Bercovici says this technology is continuing to expand and he's hopeful they will reach a point where infectious disease is no longer a major threat to human health.