The cover story in the current issue of Scientific American highlights a research study led by scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. The article, “Predicting Disease,” cites a study about predicting lupus and autoimmune diseases led by OMRF’s Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., and John Harley, M.D., Ph.D.
The Scientific American article focuses on the emerging science of predicting disease onset before symptoms even emerge. In particular, it looks at how Y-shaped molecules—called autoantibodies—in patients’ blood can tell doctors whether (and even how soon) a patient may develop certain diseases.
At OMRF, James and Harley’s research focuses on lupus, which can affect joints, skin and many organs. The Scientific American article cited the OMRF researchers’ watershed study, which appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine, where they determined that one or more lupus-related autoantibodies appear in up to 80 percent of patients before symptoms arise.
“We’re identifying biomarkers that can be detected in the bloodstream before a patient experiences an active flare of a disease,” James said. “If treated proactively, flares potentially can be averted, and that can prevent damage that can’t be reversed.”
For example, certain markers in lupus indicate an increased risk for specific organ involvement. If doctors identify a marker associated with kidney disease, physicians would administer a different treatment than for a patient who has a marker with ties to skin disease. Tests that detect these molecules could signal the need to take preventative action, and they someday could become a standard part of routine checkups for high-risk individuals.
“This is a new frontier in preventative medicine,” said James. “If we can predict who will become sick, we have a better chance of minimizing the harm that disease can cause.”
About autoimmune disease:
In autoimmune disorders, the body turns the weapons of its own immune system against itself. More than 40 autoimmune disorders, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and type I (juvenile) diabetes have been identified. Afflicting approximately 5 to 8 percent of the U.S. population, they together represent the third leading cause of sickness and death (after heart disease and cancer).
Chartered in 1946, OMRF (www.omrf.org) is one of the nation’s oldest, most respected biomedical research institutes. Dedicated to understanding and curing human disease, the nonprofit institute focuses on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease. It is home to Oklahoma’s only member of the National Academy of Sciences.