Researchers use gene profiling to distinguish viral and bacterial infections

July 25, 2013

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine report that they can distinguish between viral and bacterial infections in children with fever by profiling the activity of genes in a blood sample. In a small study, analyzing genes in white blood cells was more than 90% accurate. The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.

The study involved 30 children ages two months to three years with fevers above 100.4° F but no obvious signs of illness. Twenty-two were known to have viral infections, based on previous extensive genomic testing that is not yet practical to use in a clinic setting, and eight had bacterial infections.

Gregory Storch, MD, and colleagues at the university’s Genome Institute and the Genome Technology Access Center wanted to know whether a gene expression microarray test could identify patterns of gene activity in white blood cells that could discriminate children with viral infections from those with bacterial infections. Using microarray technology, they distinguished bacterial infections from viral infections based on distinctive patterns of gene expression.

While more work is needed, the study’s results support the notion that analyzing the activity of the body’s genes in response to childhood infections could help to identify the cause of illness and ensure that children get the right treatment. “That’s really important for clinicians, because if they see a pattern of gene expression that indicates a viral infection, they can feel comfortable not prescribing antibiotics,” Storch says. Read the study abstract.

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