Right now, getting tested for hepatitis C means giving blood and then waiting for the results of two different lab tests. But researchers at the University of California, Irvine have created a new, more efficient way to diagnose the virus.
By using molecules that change color when the disease is active, the researchers were able to reliably tell whether or not a patient was infected. This doesn’t just cut down on the number of steps performed in the lab before you get your results. It can also reliably detect the disease in a cup of your pee.
“We just do one test, and you can say yes, you have an infection, or no, you have no infection,” said Dr. Ke-Qin Hu, director of hepatology services at UC Irvine.
Hu will present the findings this week at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in San Francisco.
Hepatitis C is a virus, transmitted by blood, that can cause liver failure. An estimated 2.7 million Americans have the chronic form of the disease, but most of them don’t know it. The virus often lurks in the body for years without causing any symptoms until the liver is severely damaged.
The only way to find out that you have hep C is to be tested. And the current approach to diagnosis is hardly ideal. First, you need one test to check for evidence that the immune system has fought the disease. If your body hasn’t produced a defensive army of antibodies, chances are you don’t have the virus. But if those antibodies are present, another test is needed to see whether they remain from a past infection, or whether the virus is still active in the body.
“Usually this is going to be $200,” Hu said.
That’s a prohibitively high sticker price in many parts of the world. And if people can’t afford the test, they won’t get diagnosed let alone treated, and the virus can continue to spread unchecked. Partners pass it on during unprotected sex, drug users transmit it when they share needles, and mothers can impart the virus to their babies during pregnancy.
Hu’s new test could significantly reduce the cost of diagnosis. Because it relies on a laboratory technique known as an enzyme immunoassay, it can also detect hep C in different bodily fluids.
Hu and his team tried their test with urine from 110 people, and blood from 138 people. They compared the results with those found using the current, two-step “gold standard” test, and, in both cases, the new approach produced the exact same diagnoses as the traditional one.
An advantage of using urine is that it doesn’t require trained professionals to draw or collect blood. “You just give the patient a sample jar,” Hu said.