New diagnostic tool could soon be searching for human diseases

Scientists have discovered a way to quickly test blood samples for a wide range of diseases, as part of a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest medical research charity.  The findings will ultimately allow early identification of disease risk, and reduce the time, cost and discomfort of current tests.

The study was led by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics (WTCHG), at the University of Oxford, and also included scientists from Imperial College London and Novo Nordisk.  The findings are published today in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.

The team of researchers was led by Professor Dominique Gauguier, an expert in mammalian genetics at the WTCHG.  Blood samples from 200 rats were analysed to find a link between chemical markers found in the blood plasma and potential diseases.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), a process which uses powerful magnets to identify individual molecules, was used to compare blood samples from rats with and without particular diseases.  Over 38,000 individual molecules (known as metabolites) were quantified using NMR, including glucose, cholesterol and lipids, as well as metabolites processed by gut bacteria.  The scientists then searched for regions of the rat genome to find areas corresponding to each metabolite.  Using the results it is possible to match a disease to a particular group of metabolites, collectively known as a biomarker.

Professor Gauguier said: 'This process is an important link between DNA and disease, and shows the value of the rat as a model for how diseases come about in humans'.

The technology, which requires just a pinprick of blood, is already being applied to human blood samples, from patients suffering from coronary artery disease.  Professor Gauguier hopes that biomarkers for human diseases will be identified within a few years.