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A biomarker for premature death

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Posted October 26, 2015

A single blood test could reveal whether an otherwise healthy person is unusually likely to die of pneumonia or sepsis within the next 14 years.

Digital holographic microscopy (DHM) image of red blood cells. Image credit: Egelberg, Wikimedia Commons

Digital holographic microscopy (DHM) image of red blood cells. Image credit: Egelberg, Wikimedia Commons

Based on an analysis of 10,000 individuals, Australian and Finnish researchers have identified a molecular byproduct of inflammation, called GlycA, which seems to predict premature death due to infection.

The findings, published October 22nd, 2015 in Cell Systems, suggest that high GlycA levels in the blood indicate a state of chronic inflammation that may arise from low-level chronic infection or an overactive immune response.

That inflammation damages the body, which likely renders individuals more susceptible to severe infections.

“GlycA is a long way from being clinically useful,” says lead author Scott Ritchie from the University of Melbourne.

“Measurement of GlycA can only predict risk, which isn’t particularly useful to either health care practitioners or concerned individuals if there’s no way to reduce the risk.

“Although our study gives us a better understanding of the biology underlying the mortality risk, more work is needed to determine the causal factors in at-risk individuals.”

Additional studies are needed to uncover the mechanisms involved in GlycA’s link to inflammation and premature death, and whether testing for GlycA levels in the clinic might someday be warranted.

Co-senior author Dr Michael Inouye, from the Centre for Systems Genomics at the University of Melbourne, says there are few more important things than identifying those who might be at increased risk of disease and death.

“We want to short-circuit that risk, and to do that we need to understand what this blood biomarker of disease risk is actually telling us.”

For example, to plan a course of treatment, researchers need to know whether high GlycA is the result of a chronic, low-level microbial infection or an aberrant reaction of the body’s own inflammatory response.

The findings will likely form the foundation for numerous other studies that will investigate the role of GlycA in the body.

“The more high-quality genomics data we have, linked health records and long-term follow-up, the better our models and predictions will be,” Dr Inouye says.

“This study is an example of the progress that can be made when altruistic research volunteers, clinicians, technologists, and data scientists work together, but we have the potential to do much more, and large-scale strategic inter-disciplinary initiatives are vitally needed.”

Source: The University of Melbourne

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