Sept. 10, 2017

Fingerprinting the Immune System

In autoimmune diseases such as lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks parts of the body it is designed to protect.
Dr. Marvin Fritzler
Dr. Marvin Fritzler Don Molyneaux

These autoimmune or rheumatic diseases are difficult to diagnose accurately, as the symptoms are often slow to develop and are very similar to other conditions.   For instance, lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect many parts of the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and nervous system.  People can have lupus for years before it is properly identified and often times the damage to internal organs has already occurred by the time a diagnosis is made.

A Cumming School of Medicine research team led by Dr. Marvin Fritzler, a world leader in the diagnosis of autoimmune diseases, has developed a series of blood tests that provide a specific immune fingerprint of these diseases, allowing physicians to diagnose lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory and autoimmune diseases much earlier in their development.  Once the specific disease is identified, targeted treatment can begin to prevent or slow its progression.

Back in the 70’s, Fritzler discovered several specific antibody biomarkers (measurable biological indicators) for lupus which lead to the development of blood serum tests to diagnose the disease.    When he was recruited to the University of Calgary in 1978, the Foothills Hospital asked Fritzler’s lab to set up diagnostic testing not just for lupus, but other rheumatic and autoimmune diseases as well.  In 1986, he started a company, Mitogen Advanced Diagnostics Laboratory, and today they analyze in excess of 50,000 serum samples a year from Alberta and around the world.

“We get blood serum samples, and perform advanced blood tests that can identify up to 100 components at a time for each condition. This provides an immune fingerprint of the patient,” says Fritzler.  “We can complete this analysis in a few hours with a small drop of blood. This gives physicians information on a spectrum of more than 50 different conditions, leading to an early and accurate diagnosis.”

Not only can this lead to early diagnosis, but physicians can also use the information to decide on the best therapeutic option for each individual patient.  “Because we are providing a very specific fingerprint of the immune system, this gives physicians a much better idea of which treatment is going to be most effective,” says Fritzler.  “This will take away a lot of the ‘trial and error’ or ‘one size fits all’ approach to patient management when physicians are trying to decide on the most effective and economical medications for a patient.”

Fritzler and his colleagues are now working on a new blood test to identify specific proteins that regulate immunity and inflammation called cytokines.   “Cytokine analysis will add more information to the clinical picture – it will help us predict disease much earlier – before the damage happens, maybe even before symptoms occur,” says Fritzler.  “That means saving not just time and patient suffering, but for each patient up to tens of thousands of dollars to the healthcare system each year.”


Marv Fritzler is a professor in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Cumming School of Medicine.  He is a member of both the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.