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ASU Professor Works To Screen For Safe Blood Supply With New Test

(Photo by Lauren Gilger- KJZZ)
Refrigerators filled with blood supply samples used for testing at Dr. Stafford's lab in ASU's Biodesign Institute.

When you give blood, it has to go to a testing facility to be screened for a number of infectious diseases before it can be used to help anyone.

When Arizona State University professor Phillip Stafford saw how that testing is done, he saw an opportunity for innovation. Now, he’s received a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for screening blood with a new, simple test.

Usually, blood banks test for up to 10 infectious diseases, including HIV, syphilis, Chagas, and West Nile, before the donated blood can be used for transfusions, according to Stafford.

Now, they use 10 different kits to test for each of these 10 diseases, but, Stafford wants to use a process called immunosignaturing to test for all of those diseases at once. Instead of testing for individual diseases, Stafford’s test would show if the immune system is currently fighting any infection.

He does this in a three-part process that starts inside a room that looks like a photography dark room in the lab, where a large machine creates silicon wafers.

Stafford and his researchers arrange hundreds of thousands of random peptides on these wafers, and then, when blood is passed over them, they see how the antibodies from that blood sticks to the peptides. That is read by a scanner, and the researchers can see a "signature" for each person, according to Stafford.

Then, they can match those signatures to patterns they’ve previously identified for each disease. If someone’s blood matches a known disease pattern, they probably have that disease and their blood shouldn’t be donated.

It’s like creating a database of patterns that match each disease, he said.

Stafford is now collecting samples from people who have each of these infectious diseases, as well as from healthy people, for their research. Those samples have been tested with the current gold standard, according to Stafford.

“They ship them to us and we put them on the arrays and see what pattern shows up,” he said. “And, interestingly enough, everybody with Chagas, who’s been exposed to Chagas, has the same pattern. Everybody that’s been exposed to HIV or HBV or Hepatitis C, all has the same pattern. And the patterns are different from disease to disease.”

In the end, they’re going to test samples from hundreds of people 3200 times and analyze the data they gather from them.

Stafford originally began studying this technique to help detect cancer early. But, when he went to get blood samples for his work from Creative Testing Solutions, a large blood testing facility in Tempe, he saw how the testing was done – and how time-consuming and expensive the process was.

“I thought, ‘this is a slam dunk, we could just do all of your tests in just one assay and you’d never have to buy a new kit if you have to test for a new disease,’” he said. “Just train it and boom! You’re good to go.”

Stafford said if this technology does what he thinks it will do, the implications could be vast.

One of the first organizations that became interested in his work was the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, he said, who wanted to work with them on a project that monitors soldiers who are stationed throughout the world for disease.

“If you have a lot of people that are traveling through endemic countries, then they pick up these flu-like diseases, and that could be anything,” he said. “And, if we make our product the way we want to make it, we would be able to tell exactly what these people have.”

Stafford said it could also be a game-changer in dealing with outbreaks of viruses like MRSA or SARS, as well as in creating vaccines, like the one that’s created to guard against the flu each year.

“Every year, they have to make a vaccine against the flu and then they have to test whether or not they hit the right bug,” he said. If they were able to monitor people during the flu outbreak, he said. “You could find out exactly, within a matter of days, how close the vaccine was, and if the vaccine is off. They can start making a new vaccine right away.”

He said he hopes the technology will be affordable for blood testing companies by testing up to 20 people’s blood at once.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.