Research conducted by a team led by assistant professor Emily Baechler Gillespie at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School has spurred ongoing development of technology that could lead to a test that may help physicians better manage systemic lupus erythematosus, a painful and often debilitating disease.
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that primarily afflicts women of childbearing age — particularly African American women. The exact cause of the disease is unknown. The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that at least 1.5 million Americans and some 5 million people worldwide have systemic lupus. The disease can damage any part of the body, including skin, joints, heart, lungs, and kidneys, and symptoms typically include a characteristic butterfly rash, extreme fatigue, headaches, painful or swollen joints, and fever. Lupus is characterized by “flares” where symptoms, which can range from mild to life-threatening, suddenly worsen. Steroids are the most common form of treatment for the flares.
The technology currently in development by Gillespie is based on a research project that began in 2002 under U professor Timothy Behrens (now at Genentech). Using an algorithm developed by Jason Bauer, a former postdoctoral associate in Gillespie’s lab, the test analyzes blood samples for a panel of four chemokines, a group of proteins that are released by an activated immune system. The change in these chemokine levels can indicate that the patient is at greater risk for a flare, which may enable the physician to adjust the treatment regime to prevent or mitigate the effects of the flare. Physicians presently have no reliable way to predict a flare, which means that patients are usually not seen until after symptoms have developed and irreversible organ damage has occurred, resulting in increased pain and risk for more complications, and requiring additional medications.
“Our research shows that a test could be developed that is predictive for the majority of lupus patients, so it should help physicians to more effectively manage the disease and hopefully improve patient quality of life,” said Gillespie.
The technology has been developed to date using blood samples from lupus patients being treated by professor Michelle Petri, director of the Lupus Center at John Hopkins, where more than 1,000 patients are treated for the disease.
The University’s Office for Technology Commercialization granted an exclusive license for the technology to Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings® (LabCorp®) (NYSE: LH), a pioneer in the commercialization of new diagnostic technologies for health care providers and one of the worlds largest clinical laboratories.