New Biosignatures Consortium Working to Provide Earliest Possible Diagnosis for Infections

The HSC is a major partner in an effort that could soon allow people to learn if they have an infectious disease or have been exposed to a bioterrorist pathogen -- even before they develop symptoms.P>

Rapid diagnoses within one to two days after infection - rather than waiting one or even two weeks for symptoms to appear - are a goal of a new Biosignatures Consortium started by the HSC, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

The three-party Biosignatures Consortium has been established under a memorandum of understanding signed by the two universities and LLNL.  The aim of the Biosignatures Consortium is to provide the earliest possible diagnosis of infection, whether it's an emerging disease, known disease, or bioterrorism threat.

In its initial phase, the consortium plans to study whether diseases can be detected in humans through molecular signatures caused by the diseases even before symptoms develop. Another early focus would be whether bacterial infections can be differentiated from viral infections.

If biosignatures can be found for specific diseases, they could be used in two ways," according to Dr. Rick Lyons, associate professor for the UNM School of Medicine's Department of Internal Medicine.  "The biosignatures could be used diagnostically to see if a person has been infected or to determine whether a patient is responding well to therapy or needs more aggressive treatment," Lyons said.

The UNM Health Sciences Center has a well-regarded capability in infectious diseases and is using animal models to better understand biothreat agents.

In 2000, researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the UNM Health Sciences Center started collaborating to see if they could check for diseases before symptoms appear.  Their work, financed by a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant, is aimed at developing the instrumentation, sensing systems and computational systems for early disease detection.

Now with Livermore, we're almost a perfect match," said Dr. Stephen Albert Johnston of UT Southwestern Medical Center. "We had this vision of what was needed to do this and Livermore's expertise in instrumentation and computation was essentially the missing piece and that's why we started this consortium."

UT Southwestern Medical Center has a noted capability in developing ligands, or binding agents, that allow thousands of proteins or protein fragments to be rapidly analyzed.  "We want to make disease detection pre-symptomatic," Johnston said. "We hope to find protein or protein fragments that produce a unique biosignature indicative of specific diseases, including bioagent threats."

"It's a national security issue because of bioterrorism, but it's also a public health issue because of emerging infectious diseases," Fred Milanovich, LLNL project co-leader, said. "Exactly the same techniques that would be used to look for bioterrorist pathogens can be used to detect emerging diseases."

One hypothesis to be tested by the consortium is whether body fluids and tissues produce molecular biosignatures diagnostic for the presence of diseases.  The other main hypothesis to be examined is whether the interaction of humans and pathogens is specific and can be described from the human and pathogenic genomes.

"What separates this effort from other research programs is the comprehensive approach," Milanovich said. "Every thing we're doing is based on the measurement of molecules at some time."

The researchers also intend to study whether biothreat infections can be differentiated from naturally-occurring infections, such as influenza.

Two companies Source Precision Corp. of Boulder, Colo. and Rules Based Medicine of Austin, Texas are providing analytical capabilities to the consortium.

Contact: Cindy Foster, 272-3322

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