PULLMAN, Wash. — A finger prick is all it takes to tell whether or not you carry one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. Scientists at Washington State University say that their diagnostic test can detect Trichomonas vaginalis, also known as trich, even if people don’t exhibit any symptoms.
More common than chlamydia or gonorrhea, this STI usually goes undetected. That’s because 70 percent of trich cases are asymptomatic.
“Trich is the most common STI you’ve probably never heard of,” says John Alderete, the study lead author and professor at WSU’s school of molecular biosciences, in a university release. “This STI may be the most neglected among the other curable STIs. We just have not done a good job in medicine to educate people. One of the major problems is that most people are asymptomatic. In other words, you may have it, but you don’t know you have it until you have a really bad problem.”
Even when asymptomatic, trich is associated with increased vulnerability to HIV infection, prostate cancer in men, and infertility and pregnancy complications among women. Trich is treatable with an antibiotic called metronidazole but that can only happen if someone is diagnosed with the infection.
To improve testing efforts, the study authors developed a finger-prick test that can deliver results in five minutes. The cost to develop the test is under $20, making it affordable for patients and better for mass production.
“We know a lot about the biology of this organism,” says Alderete. “There probably will never be a vaccine for trich simply because the organism is well equipped to evade our immune responses. But I’d argue we don’t need a vaccine. We just need to diagnose people, and once diagnosed, they can be cured.”
How can you tell if you may have trich?
If symptoms are present, trich can cause genital itchiness and a burning sensation while urinating. Testing currently focuses on diagnosing women and involve a vaginal swab. The current diagnostic test also takes time to get results and requires trained professionals to handle the equipment.
The new test needs only a drop of blood to detect an antibody specific to trich. Aderete previously found the biomarker, an alpha-actinin protein unique to an organism called ACT::SOE3. Both men and women make the antibody when infected, making the test applicable to both sexes.
People can view results similar to how they see a COVID-19 and pregnancy test. There is a window with a dot appearing if the antibody is present, showing infection. The positive results lead to immediate treatment and cure. It also does not need specialized training and equipment.
According to incidence rates and census data, there are over 9.2 million cases annually of trich. One study found that 50 percent of pregnant women had persistent and undiagnosed trich infections — a major concern as trich is linked to preterm membrane rupture, preterm delivery, and low infant birth weight.
The study is published in the journal Pathogens.