A ‘liquid health check’ – could blood proteins be used to predict disease risk?

Written by Alex Hyde, Future Science Group

An international team of scientists from the University of Cambridge (UK) and biotechnology company SomaLogic (CO, USA) have carried out a study, which highlights the potential for a ‘liquid health check’ that analyzes specific blood proteins to predict disease risk.

The study results demonstrated that large-scale measurements of blood proteins from a single blood sample could provide important health information and even help to predict risk factors for a range of different diseases.

In the proof-of-concept study, published in Nature Medicine, scientists used an aptamer-based technique to determine the presence and concentration of 5000 proteins in the plasma of blood samples taken from almost 17,000 participants.

The team analyzed the gathered data using a range of statistical methods and machine learning techniques. The analyses were used to develop predictive models covering a range of health states including, but not limited to, levels of liver fat, kidney function, alcohol consumption and for risk of developing cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Although the accuracy of the models was varied – with some possessing high predictive value (percentage body fat) and others demonstrating lower predictive power (cardiovascular risk) – the team reported that the protein-based models either function as better predictors or constitute a more convenient or less expensive alternative to traditional models.

One advantage of protein-based predictive models arises from the ability of proteomics-oriented techniques to track changes in an individual’s health status over time. Comparative genomic techniques offer more ‘fixed’ data.

Following this proof-of-concept study, researchers hope that as technology becomes more affordable and more powerful, a comprehensive health evaluation – utilizing multiple protein models on a single blood plasma sample – could be a routine offering from healthcare providers.

Peter Ganz, co-leader of the study and Director of the Center of Excellence in Vascular Research, San Francisco General Hospital and University of California (CA, USA), explained: “This proof of concept study demonstrates a new paradigm that measurement of blood proteins can accurately deliver health information that spans across numerous medical specialties and that should be actionable for patients and their healthcare providers.”

On the possible future of this research Ganz stated: “I expect that in the future we will look back at this Nature Medicine proteomic study as a critical milestone in personalizing and thus improving the care of our patients.”

Source: Williams SA,  et al. Plasma protein patterns as comprehensive indicators of health. Nat. Med. doi:10.1038/s41591-019-0665-2 (Epub ahead of print)(2019); www.mrc-epid.cam.ac.uk/blog/liquid-health-check-disease-risk/