News & Updates

Back to All News

LIMR scientists create new diagnostic test for autoimmune encephalitis, isolate auto-antibodies for the disorder

July 24, 2018 Research News

Researchers at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research (LIMR) have created a simple diagnostic test for an autoimmune disorder that can lead to serious psychiatric symptoms. As part of their work, they isolated and cloned auto-antibodies that may help elucidate the underlying cellular mechanisms of the disease, which is a kind of brain inflammation depicted in the 2016 docudrama “Brain on Fire.”

Rashmi Sharma, PhD (pictured left), postdoctoral fellow, and Fetweh Al-Saleem, PhD (right), research assistant professor, both of whom work in the lab of LIMR Professor Scott Dessain, MD, PhD (center), were first authors on two recently published studies describing this work.

This inflammatory brain condition, referred to medically as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis (ANRE), occurs when the body’s immune system attacks brain cells. ANRE can lead to seizures, hallucinations, confusion, memory loss, uncontrollable body movements, and can even be fatal. About 30 percent of patients are children and teenagers, and females are affected more often than males, according to the Encephalitis Society. ANRE can be cured if it is identified early and appropriately treated, but the only currently available diagnostic test cannot be performed in most clinical laboratories.

To address this issue, Dr. Dessain and his team created a simple ANRE assay that can be adapted for use with common clinical laboratory techniques. Their results were published recently in a research report entitled “Membrane-bound and soluble forms of an NMDA receptor extracellular domain retain epitopes targeted in auto-immune encephalitis” in the journal BMC Biotechnology.

“Our discovery will help doctors to more easily identify patients who have this treatable neurological and psychiatric disease,” said Dr. Dessain, the Joseph and Ray Gordon Chair in Clinical Oncology and Research.

In a companion study, members of this research group demonstrated their ability to isolate and clone, or replicate, NMDA receptor auto-antibodies from an 18-year-old female patient who had been diagnosed with ANRE. Results of that study, “Monoclonal antibodies from a patient with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis,” were published recently in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.

“Our ability to isolate and then replicate the auto-antibodies from this patient offers researchers an unprecedented opportunity to explore the mechanisms that underlie ANRE,” said Dr. Sharma. “These auto-antibodies also provide standards for the diagnostic test we described in our first study.”

LIMR Professor Robert Cox, PhD, was a coauthor on the companion study. The LIMR team worked with David R. Lynch, MD, PhD, and other researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, as well as collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin and the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil.

Both studies were supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

About Main Line Health

Founded in 1985,Main Line Health is a not-for-profit health system serving portions of Philadelphia and its western suburbs. Main Line Health’s commitment—to deliver advanced medicine to treat and cure disease while also playing an important role in prevention and disease management as well as training physicians and other health care providers—reflects our intent to keep our community and ourselves well ahead. A team of more than 10,000 employees and 2,000 physicians care for patients throughout the Main Line Health system.

At Main Line Health’s core are four of the region’s most respected acute care hospitals—Lankenau Medical Center, Bryn Mawr Hospital, Paoli Hospital and Riddle Hospital—as well as one of the nation’s recognized facilities for rehabilitative medicine, Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital.

Main Line Health also includes Mirmont Treatment Center for drug and alcohol recovery; Main Line Health HomeCare & Hospice, which includes skilled home health care, hospice and home infusion services; Main Line Health Centers, primary and specialty care, lab and radiology, and other outpatient services located in Broomall, Collegeville, Concordville, Exton, King of Prussia and Newtown Square; Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, a biomedical research organization; and Main Line HealthCare,one of the region’s largest multispecialty physician networks.

Main Line Health is the recipient of numerous awards for quality care and service, including System Magnet® designation, the nation’s highest distinction for nursing excellence and the Mid-Atlantic Alliance for Performance Excellence (MAAPE) Excellence Award. Main Line Health is committed to creating an environment of diversity, respect and inclusion and has proudly embraced the American Hospital Association’s #123forEquity Pledge to Act to eliminate disparities in care. We are dedicated to advancing patient-centered care, education and research to help our community stay healthy.

About Lankenau Institute for Medical Research

Lankenau Institute for Medical Research (LIMR) is a nonprofit biomedical research institute located on the campus of Lankenau Medical Center and is part of Main Line Health. Founded in 1927, LIMR’s mission is to improve human health and well-being. Faculty and staff are devoted to advancing innovative new approaches to formidable medical challenges, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders and autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes and arthritis. LIMR’s principal investigators conduct basic, preclinical and translational research, using their findings to explore ways to improve disease detection, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. They are committed to extending the boundaries of human health through technology transfer and training of the next generation of scientists and physicians.