Sanford-Burnham News Archive

ELISA, at 35 Years, Test is Used for Numerous Applications from Detecting Pregnancies to Analyzing Famous Art

LA JOLLA, Calif. , February 28, 2006

It's been nearly 35 years since Dr. Eva Engvall co-discovered one of the most widely used diagnostic tests in the world, which she named ELISA. Today, you would be hard pressed to find a member within the scientific community who needs to be reminded that ELISA is an acronym for Enzyme Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay. ELISA, a simple test that uses the targeting ability of antibodies to seek and identify proteins, is applied to new fields every year, from detecting pregnancy or the AIDS virus in humans, to identifying diseases in plants and animals.

Most recently, ELISA was used by conservators at the Getty Museum and the dean of research at the University of Southern California to determine the original surface color of one of the best known pieces of the museum's collection, a 1680 French cabinet adorned with Greek mythical figures.

ELISA leverages the inherent function of antibodies, molecules developed by the body's immune system to attack and destroy foreign proteins in the body. An enzyme, a molecule that facilitates a reaction, is attached to antibodies that bind to a specific target. A chemical is then added to the mix, and if the target-antibody-enzyme complex is present, the mixture changes color.

"We had an idea that we believed would provide a substantial improvement to existing diagnostic testing and have the potential for many applications, but we never imagined ELISA would have the impact it has had," said Dr. Eva Engvall, Ph.D., M.D.HC., Professor at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research.

Indeed, ELISA is the assay used most widely to detect or diagnose virus infection, especially infection of blood-borne viruses, including HBV, HCV, HIV, and HTLV, whose sensitivity and practicability have rendered it the most common primary screening assay.

ELISA replaced a popular diagnostic test developed in the 1960s known as radio immunoassay (RIA) that was expensive, required sophisticated equipment, and posed health safety concerns for lab personnel and waste disposal. ELISA could be carried out without any special devices, as a home pregnancy test, field tests for malaria and other diseases of developing countries, and in-office medical and veterinary tests. On the other hand, the commercialization of ELISA test kits with the help of technical advancements led to rapid automation of diagnostic systems. The automation of ELISA spawned mass pipetting devices, large scale sample readers, and the 96-well microtiter plate.

In recent years, Dr. Engvall's research at the Burnham Institute has focused exploring the use of differentiation factors for muscle regeneration and the use of myogenic cells from non-muscle tissues for muscle cell replacement. Although currently there are few available effective treatments for muscle loss in muscular dystrophy and aging, multiple approaches to reduce muscle degeneration and to promote muscle regeneration are being tested experimentally.

Dr. Engvall earned her Ph.D. from the University of Stockholm in 1975. Her postdoctoral work was done at the University of Helsinki and City of Hope National Medical Center in California, where she was subsequently appointed to staff. Dr. Engvall was recruited to The Burnham Institute in 1979. For 1993-1996, Dr. Engvall held joint appointments at this institute and as Chairperson of the Department of Developmental Biology at Stockholm University. Dr. Engvall's work on the development of the Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay, ELISA, has been widely acclaimed, including honors from The German Society for Clinical Chemistry, the U.S. Clinical Ligand Assay Society, and in 1995, a special award from the Ed and Mary Shea Family Foundation. Dr. Engvall received an honorary degree in Medicine from the University of Copenhagen in November 1994.

About Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute


Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute is dedicated to discovering the fundamental molecular causes of disease and devising the innovative therapies of tomorrow. Sanford-Burnham takes a collaborative approach to medical research with major programs in cancer, neurodegeneration and stem cells, diabetes, and infectious, inflammatory, and childhood diseases. The Institute is recognized for its National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center and expertise in drug discovery technologies. Sanford-Burnham is a nonprofit, independent institute that employs more than 1,000 scientists and staff in San Diego (La Jolla), Calif., and Orlando (Lake Nona), Fla. For more information, visit us at sanfordburnham.org.

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