The Ultimate Blood Test [Preview]

A pricey way to determine health risks: 250 tests at once


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As the dizziness began to fade and the nausea to subside, I kept thinking how two tablespoons did not sound like a lot of blood. During regular checkups, my physician draws only about half that amount. I suppose I might have guessed, especially after a 12-hour fast, I would sicken when my blood pressure and glucose levels dipped—I'm a terrible blood donor in that regard.

The nurse who drew my blood helpfully looked around my office for a sweet drink. “Do you have any soda or juice?” she asked. But the only thing I had was a can of Diet Coke. Which in a way is ironic: I used to drink regular Coke but switched to the sugar-free form after blood tests revealed that my triglycerides were too high.

Momentary ill feelings, though, were an acceptable physical price for 250 blood tests done at once—I was told that running them separately with conventional means would require a liter of blood. (Imagine how dizzy and nauseated I'd feel then.) So how could I not roll up my sleeve for Biophysical Corporation? The Austin, Tex.–based company promised to use the blood to screen for presymptomatic cancers, potential immune disorders, latent infections, undetected hormonal imbalances and unrecognized nutritional deficiencies. It seemed to mark a step toward that Star Trek future in which Dr. McCoy waves around a device shaped like a saltshaker to determine a person's medical secrets. (“Heartbeat is all wrong. Body temperature is... Jim, this man is a Klingon!”)

The Biophysical250 assessment, as the firm calls it, is more than just a battery of tests. It includes a medical-history interview; a personal visit to the home or office for the blood draw (I should have picked my home, where I actually keep sugar); and a follow-up physician consultation. All this attention does not come cheap. It costs $3,400 and is not covered by health insurance. The company states that doing each test individually would cost 10 times more, so the Biophysical250 is a bargain by comparison. Still, you either need some disposable income or must be so indispensable to your employers that they will pay for it. I don't fall into either category. But because I was reviewing its product, Biophysical agreed to conduct the test on me for free.

The analysis focuses on blood biomarkers, which are chemicals whose presence or amount may indicate abnormal processes or reactions in the body. Among the most familiar are cardiovascular ones: high- and low-density lipoproteins (HDL and LDL, the good and bad cholesterols) and triglycerides.

Checking 250 biomarkers at once might seem like overkill. A routine exam screens for two or three dozen. Looking at one biomarker in isolation, however, is usually not especially informative—for instance, the ratio of LDL to HDL is more important than either alone. The Biophysical250 takes it much further: to assess the risk for heart disease and stroke, the firm analyzes 33 biomarkers.

Examining several biomarkers together improves the odds of finding problems early, especially malignancies. Blood tests for cancers have been problematic, because healthy people may produce the same kinds and amounts of the biomarkers that cancer patients do. Moreover, the chemicals do not always show up in cancer patients, and they may result from unrelated conditions. The Biophysical250 screens for about four dozen blood chemicals tied to cancerous activity in general to increase the odds of detecting disease before symptoms appear.

For example, Biophysical points to ovarian cancer, which is usually diagnosed too late. Cancer antigen 125, the most commonly measured marker for the disease, shows up in only half of patients in stage 1, when treatment is most likely to succeed. The Biophysical250 tries to boost the chance of early detection by measuring other, biologically independent compounds, such as vascular endothelial growth factor, interleukin-6 and monocyte chemoattractant protein.

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