Novel Immune Biomarker for Crohn's Disease Could Accelerate Diagnosis

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute have collaborated to identify biological markers in the blood of patients with Crohn’s disease, spurring optimism that a simple blood test could be developed to accurately diagnose the disease.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute have collaborated to identify biological markers in the blood of patients with Crohn’s disease, spurring optimism that a simple blood test could be developed to accurately diagnose the disease.

The Biodesign Institute works to discover biomarkers that can help clinicians assess patients’ risk of serious illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease. This last condition, which is the most commonly occurring inflammatory bowel disease, presents a particular challenge to researchers, physicians, and patients alike due to its undetermined biological pathways. Crohn’s disease is a chronic and painful condition that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own gut.

In a press release, the lead authors of the biomarker study explained that the current arduous process of diagnosing Crohn’s disease through scans and biopsies presents a significant obstacle for patients enduring the disease’s gastrointestinal symptoms. However, if a simple blood test could identify signs of Crohn’s, patients may be able to begin treatment sooner, while researchers would learn more about the mechanisms of the disease.

“If we are going to truly alter the natural history of Crohn’s disease and help people, we needed to develop a new test for early, accurate diagnosis, as well as administrating appropriate therapy,” said study author Josh LaBaer, MD, PhD, interim executive director of the Biodesign Institute.

According to Ji Qiu, PhD, also of the Biodesign Institute, the research team hypothesized that the disease might be linked to immune biomarkers that could someday be detected through commercial blood tests.

“There has been increasing evidence that suggests the Crohn’s disease immune response may be a result of altered microbes in the gut or exposure to harmful toxins that will result in antibodies against microbial and human proteins being made that are very specific manifestation of the disease,” Qiu said.

After examining serum samples collected by the Mayo Clinic from 48 Crohn’s patients, the researchers flagged several possible immune biomarkers, or autoantibodies, then conducted tests on protein arrays to assess the sensitivity and specificity of each. They found that bacterial flagellin antibodies were the strongest biomarker indicators, but also identified a novel biomarker, the antibody against small nuclear ribonucleoprotein-associated protein B.

“One possibility is that these antibodies reflect dysregulated immune response in the gut,” explained LaBaer. “Another is that they could play a pathogenic role. But so far, we simply don’t have enough such antibodies discovered to understand their functional role.”

The study authors acknowledged that further research would be needed to examine the relationships between Crohn’s and thousands of proteins and antibodies. They also stated that a panel of biomarkers, not just one on its own, would be the most powerful tool for clinical diagnosis. Still, they wrote, this study represented a cause for hope that Crohn’s could someday be easier to spot through a simple blood test.

“We are excited about the potential of this immunoproteomics approach for Crohn’s disease and will work to discover additional biomarkers,” LaBaer concluded.