Growing up, Judith James rarely passed up an episode of Star Trek. From her living room in Pond Creek, the future M.D./Ph.D. sat transfixed as Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before. For the future physician and medical researcher, the workings of the ship’s doctor, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, held a special interest.
“I was always intrigued when Dr. McCoy scanned his fellow shipmates with a tricorder,” said James. On the show, which was set in the 23rd century, the—fictional—handheld device allowed McCoy to scan individuals (human or alien) to diagnose illness. The medical tricorder even predicted when an apparently healthy being eventually would fall prey to disease.
“I loved the idea that you could tell people they were going to get sick before it happened,” said James. “But I thought that concept was completely in outer space, far beyond anything that would happen in my own lifetime.”
Turns out that future may not be so far away. And the one-time Trekkie from Pond Creek is at the forefront of transforming yesterday’s science fiction into today’s reality.
James, who now holds the Lou C. Kerr Chair in Biomedical Research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, has pioneered the study of how Y-shaped molecules called autoantibodies can predict whether a healthy person will one day develop an autoimmune disease, a broad category of disorders that encompasses conditions such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type I diabetes. A simple blood test can detect the presence (or absence) of autoantibodies.
In a groundbreaking study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, James and fellow OMRF researchers John Harley, M.D., Ph.D, and Hal Scofield, M.D., showed that in patients who ultimately developed lupus, certain autoantibodies appeared in their blood years before they developed symptoms. That work, which was the product of almost two decades of research, represented a crucial milestone in the emerging field of predicting disease.
Using autoantibodies as a sort of diagnostic crystal ball, doctors may soon be able to tell seemingly healthy people that they will develop lupus or other autoimmune diseases. Yet this work holds the potential to do more than see the future. “With this kind of information,” said James, “we also could begin fighting disease before symptoms ever appear.”
The work holds exciting clinical potential: Tests to detect these molecules could become a standard part of routine checkups for high-risk individuals, and a positive test could signal the need to take preventive action. Still, cautioned James, “We’re not at the point now where we have all the answers in that magic ball. There are a lot of normal, healthy individuals who will never be sick a day in their lives who still have some of these autoantibodies in their blood.” And because the causes of lupus are not yet known, preventive measures are far from guaranteed to be effective.
James presented her findings at the 2007 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest interdisciplinary scientific forum. That research also was featured this year in Scientific American, in a cover story entitled “New Predictors of Disease.”
James, who’s not yet 40, already has played a key role in advancing the new frontier of preventive medicine, a world not so far from what she saw on Star Trek as a child. So what’s next for the OMRF researcher?
“I guess I’ll just look forward to they day when I can fly to OMRF in a car like George Jetson’s,” she said, smiling.
About autoimmune disease
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body confuses pieces of itself for foreign invaders like germs. Mistakenly believing pathogens are attacking, the immune system turns its weapons against the body’s own cells. These illnesses, which include lupus, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, affect as many as 23.5 million Americans.
OMRF (omrf.org) is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and developing more effective treatments for human disease. Chartered in 1946, its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease.