Respiratory Infections: Viral, Bacterial or Mineral?

Gene expression changes in the blood can accurately diagnose viral and bacterial acute respiratory infections.

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Winter's just begun and you're at the doctor's office. Nose stuffed up, throat sore, head loopy, wheezing as if you just ran a marathon. You know you have an acute respiratory infection (ARI). But is it viral or bacterial? Doesn't matter. You're going to get an antibiotic for it, or that's the case for 73% of us.

Most ARIs are not microbiologically confirmed in the clinic, and even if a viral cause is found, there's still the possibility of a bacterial coinfection, so out comes the prescription pad for some miracle pills, "just in case." Finding ways to reduce this type of clinical overuse of antibiotics (41% of all antibiotics prescribed are to treat ARIs) is critical if we're going to maintain the efficacies of our drugs.

This is the problem that Tsalik et al. sets up to address in the current issue of Science Translational Medicine. In their study, they utilize human gene expression changes to discriminate between and diagnose bacterial and viral ARIs. By analyzing blood samples from 273 patients who were healthy or diagnosed with either a viral or bacterial respiratory infection, they defined sets of gene expression changes that were characteristic for bacterial and viral infections. Using these markers, they could derive 87% specificity in diagnosing either infection (or coinfection) in the clinic, a 5-15% boost in accuracy over other diagnostic methods.

So what were the pathogen-specific host changes? For viruses, aside from the usual suspects (interferon genes, T cell signaling, RNA processing genes), there was a unique marker, the downregulation of KPNB1, which is a nuclear transport protein that is commonly co-opted by viruses to move around the cell. For bacterial infections, it was cell cycle genes and pathways involved in T, B and NK cell differentiation. But the most unique and predictive markers were a set of metabolic changes in fatty acid and amino acid metabolism and oxidative stress responses.

Of course, only more testing will prove whether these markers are the next step in ARI diagnosis. But don't be surprised if some time in the future, as you fidget miserably on the crinkly tissue paper, the doctor offers a blood draw instead of a prescription and sees you home empty-handed with a consolatory "Let's wait and see."

Michael Chao

Project Manager, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

I first developed an interest in bacterial pathogenesis while at Cornell University. I then earned my PhD in Biomedical and Biological Sciences from Harvard University in Eric Rubin’s laboratory, studying cell wall remodelling in Mycobacterium tuberculosis. From 2012-2015, I continued my training as a postdoctoral fellow in Matthew Waldor’s lab at Harvard Medical School, investigating the role of DNA methylation on regulating fundamental cellular processes in Vibrio cholerae.


Go to the profile of Nonia Pariente
almost 6 years ago
Ups... I clearly need to read the community post more often :) Great minds think alike!