Ian Lipkin, a virus hunter from Columbia University, recently received a blood sample from colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. They came from a man who had received a bone-marrow transplant and had fallen mysteriously ill, with evidence of severely inflamed blood vessels. In analyzing a similar case a few years back, Lipkin had discovered a new polyomavirus, part of a family that can cause disease in people with compromised immune systems. Perhaps this new case would yield another new virus.
It didn't. Instead, when Lipkin's team ran the sample through a system that they had devised to detect human viruses, they found that the man was infected with dengue virus. In hindsight, that made sense—he had recently returned from Vietnam, where dengue is prevalent. But the thing is: The team wasn't looking for dengue virus.
“It wasn't what we anticipated, but we didn't have to make a priori decisions about what we planned to find,” Lipkin says. “When people analyze samples from people who are ill, they have some idea in mind. This is probably an enterovirus, or maybe it's a herpesvirues. They then do a specific assay for that particular agent. They don't usually have the capacity to look broadly.”