Posted: January 26, 2016
It’s a fine feeling for a medical researcher to see the transformation of his or her research into a convenient and affordable product that will improve thousands of lives.
But it must be even finer to realize the initial product is just a beginning, that more research, building on previous discoveries, might not only improve, but actually cure the disease.
Dr. Walter Maksymowych, a medical doctor and professor at the University of Alberta, is one of Canada’s top rheumatoid arthritis researchers. With Dr. Aziz Ghahary (now at the University of British Columbia) he discovered a “bio-marker” (a blood protein known as 14-3-3n) that, when present in the blood stream, is an undisputable indicator of rheumatoid arthritis.
The discovery has led to a readily available rheumatoid arthritis diagnostic kit known as JOINTstat ™. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune, inflammatory condition that causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. The earlier it can be diagnosed, the better the chances for more successful management of the condition.
Dr. Maksymowych’s on-going research increasingly points to the blood protein 14-3-3n as being not only a bio-marker indicating the presence of rheumatoid arthritis, but an actual cause of joint inflammation.
“Scientists can develop an antibody to combat any molecule. In today’s advanced therapeutic world, that’s very routine,” he says. “Animal studies are showing if we can clear the 14-3-3n protein in its very early stages, we could cure rheumatoid arthritis. That’s the Holy Grail – a very early diagnosis that can pin-point the disease in its earliest stages and cure it, if caught early enough.”
It’s not quite that simple. Tobacco use can create a chemical reaction, modifying the 14-3-3n protein. There’s not just one simple 14-3-3n protein to study, but four: The 14-3-3n itself, the antibodies that fight the 14-3-3n protein, the 14-3-3n protein modified by smoking, and the antibodies that fight the modified 14-3-3-n. “The checks and balances are rather complex,” Dr. Maksymowych says by way of understatement.
(A little known fact: Rheumatoid arthritis was unknown in Europe until the use of tobacco became widespread by the 18th century.)
Dr. Maksymowych sees a series of stages of scientific discovery as more becomes known about 14-3-3n, its modifications and the antibodies produced in reaction to its presence.
1. In the immediate future, the creation of more accurate arthritis diagnostics beyond the current JOINTstat, using the 14-3-3n as a “biomarker platform.”
2. As researchers learn more about the 14-3-3n antibodies, more information can be gleaned about the future path that rheumatoid arthritis inflammation might take. “We will know if the arthritis, for instance, will be mild or severe.” Dr. Maksymowych says.
3. By measuring all the 14-3-3n substances and antibodies, doctors will be able to prescribe more personalized arthritis treatments that will not be so hit-and-miss as at present. “Forty percent of treatments prescribed for arthritis don’t work, because the diagnostic tools are not (yet) precise enough. Canadians spend over $1 billion on arthritis treatment – that number could be halved with more precise diagnostics leading to less guess work.”
As contemplated in this report, the ability to cure arthritis through targeted antibodies is slowly becoming a possibility, as long as the disease is detected very, very early.
“We haven’t even realized 20% of the potential of the 14-3-3n blood protein,” says Dr. Maksymowych. “Once we understand the full spectrum of how the protein, its modifications and its antibodies can be used, we could make huge leaps in the management of rheumatoid arthritis.”
The actual business details of creating the JOINTstat commercial diagnostic kit from Dr. Maksymowych and Dr. Ghahary’s 14-3-3-n research was done primarily by the University of British Columbia’s Industry Liaison Office.
TEC Edmonton’s Technology Management team ensured that the University of Alberta’s intellectual property interests were assigned to UBC and then to the spin-off company Augurex Life Sciences Corporation, created for the purpose of commercializing and selling JOINTstat.