Diagnosing disease before symptoms
Doctors may some day be able to tell whether individuals have been exposed to a disease-causing pathogen well before they develop symptoms.
Rapid diagnosis of infection one to two days after exposure, rather than waiting days to weeks for symptoms to appear, is the aim of a new national security research initiative at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
This new approach to disease detection, called "pathomics," is the focus of a multi-million dollar Livermore research effort that spans seven directorates and several disciplines.
Pathomics is, in effect, the study of the molecular basis of infectious disease. It focuses on the changes in protein levels and other molecules that occur when a body has been exposed to a pathogen.
"We don't have any technology right now to detect the presence of anthrax before you're essentially too sick to help," said project co-leader Fred Milanovich, who founded the Lab's Chemical and Biological National Security Program (CBNP) in 1996.
Pathomics was conceived in late 2001 as a strategic vision for the Laboratory's CBNP by Milanovich, current CBNP leader Pat Fitch and Ken Turteltaub, head of Biology's Biodefense Division.
Lawrence Livermore's collaborators in early disease detection research are the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and the Center for Biomedical Inventions at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas.
"The premise of pathomics is that before the onset of illness, there is a molecular indication of disease in human blood," Milanovich explained.
Faster disease detection, followed by more rapid treatment, could help save the lives of people exposed to bioterrorist agents such as anthrax and plague.
Now more than one year old, Livermore's pathomics project has been funded as a strategic initiative by the Laboratory's Directed Research and Development Program.
In their initial studies, the researchers are evaluating the baseline status of people's blood when they are healthy.
The 15-person research team is checking the blood of humans and animals to identify the thousands of components, such as nucleic acids and proteins, that constitute normal blood.
"We're examining the changes in these components, from increased or reduced concentrations to the appearance of new ones," said Turteltaub, who is also a project co-leader. Bill Colston, associate leader for Physics' Medical Physics and Biophysics Division, is the team's third project co-leader.
"It's in these changes, brought on by the presence of the pathogen, that the team believes they can find an early diagnostic tool to detect the presence of disease before you even have symptoms," Turteltaub explained.
As a part of the three-year project, the Livermore team hopes to validate their approach by addressing three main questions:
One of the project's major challenges, according to Milanovich, is bioinfomatics—the acquisition and analysis of large amounts of biological data from diverse sources.
"We anticipate making measurements or gathering biological statistics that will generate more than 80 million different pieces of data," Milanovich noted.
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