Experimental Test Builds on LRI-Funded Work to Improve Lupus Diagnosis

As with any illness, once it is diagnosed, lupus can be treated. And as with most diseases, the earlier in the process the better. Research originally funded by the LRI has led to a study using computer chip technology to speed up diagnosis.

A protein-containing computer chip developed by researchers at Stanford University and Intel could allow faster and more accurate diagnosis of lupus, according to a new report published in Nature Medicine. This important advance was facilitated by research first funded by the Lupus Research Institute.

Why is a New Diagnostic Needed?

In lupus, the immune system produces antibodies that react with components of the body’s own cells, known as autoantibodies. Diagnosis can take years as the symptoms vary widely between patients and come and go over time. Currently, there is no single laboratory test that can determine if someone has lupus.

How Does the New Technology Work?

The Stanford team engineered a silicon computer chip containing thousands of subtly different protein segments derived from a single protein (known as a histone 2B), which is a common target of autoantibodies in lupus.

Testing blood from lupus patients by applying the sample directly on to the chip, the researchers could determine which patients had antibodies targeting histone 2B, and to which particular part of the protein. The precision of the technology allowed the researchers to accurately identify patients with severe lupus versus those with milder disease.

How Did the LRI-Funded Work Contribute?

The researchers distinguished patients with mild versus severe lupus using a biological lab test (biomarker) discovered by Dr. Emily Baechler-Gillespie, University of Minnesota, as part of an LRI grant. The test measures genes being “switched-on” in white blood cells in response to a protein known as interferon, which is known to drive lupus.

Dr. Baechler-Gillespie, also an author on this just published paper noted, “Through the discoveries made as part of our LRI Novel Research Grant, we gained an even greater appreciation for the importance of examining subgroups of lupus patients based on a particular biomarker measuring severity of lupus based on interferon pathway activation. In this new study, the interferon biomarker my team had identified previously was used to compare the accuracy of the technology in identifying those with severe versus mild lupus.”

Dr. Baechler-Gillespie’s work demonstrates that groundbreaking scientific discoveries funded by LRI can continue to advance lupus research in unexpected ways many years down the line.

What Are the Implications of This New Technology?

In the future, the technology could be developed as a test to diagnose autoimmune diseases such as lupus or to monitor the effectiveness of treatment. Unlike existing lab tests for lupus, a chip-based test could be carried out in the doctor’s office, with results available immediately.“The chip could provide the basis for a clinical test that would very rapidly assessa very specific autoantibody response, which could be key for early detection in someone who is suspected of having lupus,” said Dr. Baechler-Gillespie.

The fine specificity and convenience of the technology also make it attractive for use in clinical trials.

LRI scientific adviser, Dr. David Pisetsky, Duke University explained, “This technology could be used to help subset patients in clinical trials of the basis of biomarkers. It could also be used to follow patients over time to see if there are changes in autoantibody specificity in a way that influence disease course. These changes could occur with the evolution of disease or following therapy.”

Are Other Biomarkers in Development?

Dr. Baechler-Gillespie is just one of 15 investigators funded by LRI to discover and explore innovative paths to discover new biomarkers that can improve diagnosis and prognosis of lupus and advance clinical trial design. Ten new biomarkers discovered in the course of LRI-funded work are now under investigation in patients.