SPECIAL REPORT: A single drop of blood reveals more about you
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking cigarettes causes one of every five deaths in the United States every year, cutting the average smoker's life short by at least ten ears. Excessive drinking kills about one in every ten adults the average person losing out on 30 years of life. But a new blood test, developed right here in the Corridor, could save those addicts from their addictions.
Robert Philibert, MD, PHD and CEO of Behavioral Diagnostics LLC, says it’s a relatively simple process, but it could solve one of the biggest difficulties in clinical medicine: measuring deadly cigarette and alcohol consumption.
“Our usual mechanism for diagnosing alcoholism is: you've been arrested, divorced or lost your job,” Dr. Philibert says.”Unfortunately at that point in time, our ability to treat you effectively is markedly diminished.”
So, he wanted to find a more timely way to help people stop drinking or smoking.
He says when someone drinks regularly, they don’t self report the number of drinks they have very reliably.
“They may say they drink six to eight beers just that once, but in all likely hood, we know you have to become tolerant of alcohol to be able to drink that much,” says Dr. Philibert.
Soon, it may not matter what they say, because one drop of their blood will reveal every drink..
The patented Alcohol Signature and Smoke Signature tests measure changes of gene patterns within your DNA, or epigenetics.
The studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that developed the tests began at the University of Iowa around 2007. The University of Iowa filed for the patents, and Dr. Philibert then co-founded Behavioral Diagnostics LLC. in Coralville to work further on the techniques.
He says the government fully funds the start-up with the expectation it benefits the public.
“One of our goals is to control site specific licensing of this so no one gets fired from their job for smoking and no one gets fired from their job for drinking,” says Dr. Philibert. “We will only use these under the conditions that anyone who is detected of having an alcohol problem, gets a chance to go through treatment, anyone smoking who shouldn't be, gets a chance to go through treatment.”
The alcohol test can look at drinking behavior for up to one year using just that one drop of blood.
The test doesn’t yet have FDA approval, but Dr. Philibert is meeting with officials to try and make it happen. Although it’s not available to the public, it is available to attorneys to use for their clients. He also points out, all samples are labeled with numbers, not names, so the results stay private and samples are destroyed within a month if not specifically designated for longer keeping.
Dr. Philibert hopes the test is used in drunk driving cases.
He sees it’s use like this: “[If] you've been arrested for DWI (OWI), and this is just a one off, you can take this test and show the judge you do not have an alcohol problem.”
For return offenders, he says they could take the test twice, once for the judge to see the level of drinking and then again later to see if they've stopped drinking or not.
The tests could also help keep children safe.
“The biggest risk to that child is substance use and the behavior of their parents,” Dr. Philibert says. “Currently attorneys can contact us for assessing the substance use status of someone undergoing child custody [agreements].”
He also hopes to prevent kids from smoking.
“They will be more likely to use other substances, engage in other risky behavior and they will be more likely to suffer a gruesome death of heart disease, cancer or any number of smoking related illnesses,” he says.”Anything I can do to prevent this, I feel propelled to do.”
Right now, Behavioral Diagnostics LLC. is studying Corridor high school students checking in regularly and giving them the Smoke Signature test. In the study, Dr. Philibert says he’s found that kids use substances, like tobacco, much more than they report. He says only one in three kids who tested positive for smoking admitted to it.
He says adults under-report their substance use too, especially when it comes to what they tell health and life insurance companies. Because of that, at least half a dozen firms have reached out to work with Behavioral Diagnostics LLC. to check client self-reporting.
“The reason is not because they wish to deny the policy,” he says, “what they want to do is more appropriately adjust that premium to it more accurately assess the risk they're taking.”
This new technique could also help stop a major killer n its tracks: coronary heart disease.
Meeshanthini Dogan, PHD, says “Heart disease and stroke are one of the more preventable diseases. But for us to prevent it, we need to identify these people well in advance and put in place those necessary interventions.”
Dr. Dogan started as a graduate assistant to Dr. Philibert at Iowa and is now the CEO of Cardio Diagnostics LLC., funded by Behavioral Diagnostics LLC.
With one drop of blood, Dr. Dogan can examine genes and gene patterns to calculate the chances of coronary heart disease within five years and what's contributing to it such assmoking or unhealthy diet.
“We can harness that information to tell you what personalized interventions, not just any, but personalized interventions that can help you reduce your risk.”
Dr. Dogan says they can do that by extracting the DNA from the drop of blood, apply a set of markers to it and then put the output into a prediction model. She says within 12 hours, the test can reveal the main contributors to the risk, if there is any, and their percentage. She gives the example of a fictitious patient name Meesha whose test could show her coronary heart disease risk contributed 80% to diabetes, 20% to cholesterol and 10% to smoking. At that point, Meesha’s doctor would tell her to focus on getting her diabetes under control. After about six months of life style change, Meesha would give a drop of blood again to recheck her risk and reassess her strategy moving forward in hopes of eliminated any risk of coronary heart disease, eventually.
Dr Philibert says that’s the whole point of all of this: saving lives. “The real pay off will be when kids stop smoking. The real pay off will be when someone realizes, they have no choice but to stop drinking, it will be better for them. It will be better for their families. It will be better for all of us.”
Dr. Philibert hopes to have FDA approval for the Smoke Signature and Alcohol Signature tests within the next two to three years.
Cardio Diagnostics LLC is looking for investors and securing partnerships to conduct validation tests to their technique.
Dr. Dogan says they're less than a year from rolling out the first version of the lab test.
She says they also hope to develop similar tests to monitor stroke and congestive heart failure risks in the future.