Autoantibodies targeting mitochondria are observed in liver disease primary biliary cirrhosis.

Professor Ian Mackay had a lifelong interest in autoimmune diseases, particularly those of the liver and stomach.

As early as 1958, Mackay had shown that serum from people with primary biliary cirrhosis reacted strongly to the autoimmune complement fixation test, an early ‘screening’ test for autoimmune diseases.

Antibodies targeting cell’s energy factories

Primary biliary cirrhosis is a liver disease that causes chronic inflammation and scarring of the liver. Mackay discovered its autoimmune origins, and was one of his major interests. 

However it wasn’t until 1988 that the laboratory found a key to better understanding the disease – showing autoantibodies formed against mitochondria, the energy factories of the cells. Eric Gershwin, a visiting professor in the Clinical Research Unit, was able to “successfully clone the mitochondrial autoantigen, and Eric and Ian opened up an exciting new field of research”1 in primary biliary cirrhosis.

This is the first time that anti-mitochondrial autoantibodies had been observed in this disease.

1 Whittingham S, Rowley M and Gershwin E. A tribute to an outstanding immunologist – Ian Reay Mackay. Journal of Autoimmunity. 2008, 31: 197-200