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Enter the Duke dorm study. It's enrolling up to 800 students who agree to log onto a Web site every day and report if they have any cold- or flu-like symptoms.
Researchers signed up Sean Cadley, a freshman from New York City, when she walked by them already hacking. She admits being enticed in part by $75 in compensation for the pokes and prods of testing.
"I'm getting something out of being sick, which is always nice," said Cadley, a sharp cough still punctuating every few sentences nearly two weeks later.
Cadley, 18, thought nothing of the bug at first, but a fever of 103 hit a few days after the cough and she says she didn't leave her room for two days. Researchers won't say if it was the flu or another virus. But they quickly e-mailed her dorm-mates to say someone in the building was sick, and Cadley's friends raced to volunteer for up to five days of tests -- pocketing $150 each -- to see if they, too, would fall ill.
Beyond the pre-symptom test, the dorm study could shed crucial new light on how flu ripples through communities. Using sophisticated mapping techniques, researchers will tease out social aspects of infection -- how close you must be to the sick to catch their bug, for example. And they may identify hot spots of transmission where they can warn students to take extra precautions.
If the study pans out, the Defense agency's Ling hopes to seek Food and Drug Administration approval for a pre-symptom test within two years, aimed at crowded quarters like the military, colleges, nursing homes, even hospital intensive care units.
To Ginsburg, the work is only the beginning. He envisions catching deadly bacterial or fungal infections far earlier in vulnerable people like organ transplant recipients, or even a day when there's a treatment for the common cold -- should you detect it early enough.
"Infectious disease is ripe for this," Ginsburg says.
Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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