You could say that Michael Snyder is obsessed with learning about the inner workings of his own body. The Stanford University geneticist once tracked himself as he developed diabetes.
Now, in a new paper, he took repeated blood samples every day for a week — 14 a day, 98 times in all. He used a new method he and his team had developed, using a drop from a finger prick instead of vial after vial from the crook of his arm.
The study, published Thursday morning, showed that Snyder and colleagues could get nearly the same results as a typical blood draw from a sample 1,000 times smaller.
In addition to learning more about his own biology, Snyder thinks it offers a new way to track health measures and could eventually replace drawing blood at the local doctor. Such microsampling, he said, is convenient, can be done more frequently than an annual or semi-annual blood draw, and does not require a visit to a clinic with sick people.
“I think it’s going to take over the way we do health monitoring,” Snyder said.
Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, who is not involved in the work, said the samples are provocative but not yet ready for widespread use.
“It’s an unprecedented depth of data collection,” Topol said. “Whether that’s useful is another question.”
‘It’s Theranos that works’
Snyder compared the technology to the deeply discredited approach of the company Theranos, whose former CEO and president are now behind bars.
“It’s Theranos that works,” Snyder said of his own technology.
Theranos also used a drop of blood, but in Snyder’s approach, blood is shipped to a conventional lab that sorts molecules based on their mass and electronic charge, while Theranos promised a new analytical process that never worked.
Other companies are currently developing single-drop blood tests, but Snyder envisions doing it more often at home rather than during an occasional doctor’s visit.
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What the study found
Snyder and his colleagues examined a wide variety of factors from each sample, including factors involved in metabolism, immune system, blood sugar and other measures of health.
In his own samples, he was able to see how his body metabolizes aspirin and how long it takes for his glucose to peak after eating, which is helpful for someone like him with diabetes.
He saw a link between his caffeine consumption and poor sleep. “Now I have a little less and try to stop earlier,” he said, although he’s not sure it will make a difference.
The researchers also examined the blood of 28 people four hours after they drank a bottle of the food shake Worry. One group, perhaps those with insulin resistance, responded very quickly to the drink, and in some it increased their levels of inflammation, suggesting it wasn’t doing them any good.
Others processed the shake more slowly, and some had lowered inflammatory markers, suggesting it conferred a benefit. Knowing which foods cause or reduce inflammation “would be very, very powerful,” Snyder said, allowing people to make more personal decisions about which foods to eat or avoid.
What are the challenges?
Snyder has launched two companies based on the research: RTHM, which is using the approach to look at long COVID, and Iollo, a metabolic testing company working to make these blood tests public. It is not clear how much the test will cost.
But computer technology can’t yet thoroughly analyze such a complex set of repeatedly collected data, Topol said, and not everyone will want to draw or send their own blood.
“This is enticing,” Topol said, but “this is very involved for the person. It’s expensive. These practicalities will have to be validated to see if it’s worth it.”
What is the potential for this type of blood test?
Wearable devices, such as watches, focus on collecting physical parameters, while the molecular information available through Snyder’s method is “critical to personalized health monitoring,” said Wei Gao, an assistant professor of medical technology at the California Institute of Technology, via email.
“This technology provides a viable way to collect rich molecular information in people’s daily lives using easily accessible fingerstick blood sampling,” Gao said.
Snyder said this approach could eventually be used to detect stress, watch for early signs of illness and see which foods are problematic for which people.
He and his team have already started tracking patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, to see what triggers their exhaustion attacks and to identify signs of an impending crash.
They’re also preparing to launch a study into how the “exposome” — the pollution, chemicals, bacteria, pollen and fungi in the environment — affects a person’s blood chemistry.
“I could see almost all blood tests run from the (person’s) house in the future,” Snyder said. “It just makes sense.”
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