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Blood Test Could Determine the Cause of a Fever

Many childhood fevers are due to undiagnosed illnesses, but a blood test can identify potential causes

Shutterstock/Aleksandra Suzi

A blood test has the potential to determine whether a fever is caused by bacteria, viruses, or an inflammatory disease by examining changes in gene activity, according to researchers.

The current diagnostic tools used to identify the cause of fevers, which search for pathogens, are often slow and unreliable. This leaves about three-quarters of children hospitalized for fevers without a diagnosis, explains Myrsini Kaforou at Imperial College London. However, genetic tests offer a promising alternative, as certain genes activate or deactivate in response to diseases.

To explore this further, Kaforou and her colleagues conducted a study that analyzed gene expression in blood samples taken from 1212 children ranging from a few weeks old to 18 years old. All of these children had been diagnosed with one of the 18 infectious or inflammatory diseases known to cause fevers.

The researchers utilized a machine learning model to analyze the data and identified 161 genes that correlated with diseases across six different categories: bacterial infections, viral infections, inflammatory diseases, malaria, tuberculosis, or Kawasaki disease. To validate their model, the team tested it on a separate group of 411 children with fevers. They assessed the model’s accuracy using a statistical measure that ranges from 0 to 1. Across the various disease categories, the model yielded an accuracy score ranging from 0.89 to 1. A score of 0.8 or higher is generally considered to indicate excellent accuracy.

If implemented, this finding could significantly accelerate the diagnostic process, enabling prompt and appropriate treatment while reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics. This is particularly important as antibiotic resistance continues to be a growing concern, explains Kaforou.

Christopher Woods at Duke University in North Carolina praises this research as a meaningful step in the field of precision medicine for infectious and inflammatory diseases in children. However, he notes that before it can be used in clinical settings, further validation on larger datasets is necessary.

While acknowledging that their list is not exhaustive and that more infectious and inflammatory conditions need to be included, Kaforou states that recruiting more patients and generating additional data will help identify a comprehensive signature for these diseases.

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