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    My Friends Got the Plague, and This New Test Could Have Helped Them

    Written by

    Andrew Overton

    If only these guy could've just done a blood test, via Wikimedia Commons.

    Contrary to popular belief, the bubonic plague—the disease behind the 14th century pandemic known as the Black Death—still persists today. It was just detected in a squirrel in California, for instance. Every few years, cases of human infection pop up in regions as disparate as Madagascar, India, and, believe it or not, my home state of New Mexico.

    It might be found lurking in backyards on the outskirts of Santa Fe County. The fleas calling a squirrel or prairie dog home can harbor the plague quietly, just waiting for some unsuspecting puppy to come outside and play. The fleas jump to the puppies. The puppies go home. Very rarely—about seven times per year nationwide—people get sick.

    I’ve known people (only two, but still, that’s crazy) who’ve contracted the plague. One was fine. I don’t think she stayed in the hospital for more than a week or two. The other was not so lucky. He was in a coma for a few months, and woke up without legs.

    The plague, in other words, is still horrifying and grotesque. This is what symptoms look like when they emerge:

    Image: Wikimedia

    One of the scariest parts about my friends' story, though—and this is the part some of you may actually remember—is that they brought their case of the plague to New York City.

    However, hypochondriacs need not fear. A team of researchers specializing in the chemistry and biology of sugars at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (MPIKG) in Pitsdam, Germany, and the Freie Universität Berlin, has developed a cheap and effective way to test patients’ blood for the deadly bacterium. Such an innovation could help prevent the types of outbreaks that are possible in a world where New Mexicans are granted air travel.

    To develop the procedure, the researchers first identified and synthesized a sugar found on the outer membrane of the deadly bacteria. From there, they combined the synthesized sugar with a protein commonly used to induce heightened immune responses. This provided them an ideal environment for the proliferation of antibodies, whose presence in blood can now be seen as a biomarker for diagnosing the illness.

    The procedure, a simple blood test, can be executed with unprecedented speed. According to Peter Seeberger, director of the MPIKG, “This gives the new approach major advantages over the testing methods used to date. In the past, plague pathogens were detected by phenotyping or gene testing. The problem with these methods is that they are complex, expensive and slow - and, what’s more, they have a high failure rate.”

    Despite very low incidence and the availability of treatment with modern antibiotics, the plague is still a very deadly illness whose prognosis becomes worse by the minute when it strikes. This technique is useful because it provides a quick way of, at the very least, ruling out the illness, which is so often overlooked.

    Importantly, the researchers note that their technique would not have been possible without previous basic research, which many consider a lesser priority than corporate-sponsored applied research.

    “Basic research has an intrinsic value,” says Peter Seeberger. “But in the field of glycomics, we are increasingly able to translate our research directly into applications with a practical value, very much like the value our latest development has for the medical world.”

    If only my friends, not to mention all those millions of medieval Europeans, had been lucky enough to benefit from it.