Much of the discussion about Western blotting centers around its performance as a biological research tool. This isn’t surprising. Since its introduction in the late 1970s, the Western blot has been adopted by biology labs of virtually every stripe, and become one of the most widely used techniques in the research armamentarium. However, Western blotting has also been employed in clinical laboratories to aid in the diagnosis of various diseases and disorders—an equally important and valuable application. Yet there has been relatively little discussion of its use in this context, or of how advances in Western blotting might affect its future clinical use.

Highlighting the clinical value of Western blotting, Stanley Naides, MD, medical director of Immunology at Quest Diagnostics observed that, “Western blotting has been a very powerful tool in the laboratory and for clinical diagnosis. It’s one of many various methods that the laboratorian brings to aid the clinician in the diagnosis of disease, and the selection and monitoring of therapy.” Indeed, Western blotting has been used at one time or the other to aid in the diagnosis of infectious diseases including hepatitis C (HCV), HIV, Lyme disease, and syphilis, as well as autoimmune disorders such as paraneoplastic disease and myositis conditions.

However, Naides was quick to point out that the choice of assays to use clinically is based on their demonstrated sensitivity and performance, and that the search for something better is never-ending. “We’re constantly looking for methods that improve detection of our target [protein],” Naides said. “There have been a number of instances where we’ve moved away from Western blotting because another method proves to be more sensitive.” But this search can also lead back to Western blotting. “We’ve gone away from other methods because there’s been a Western blot that’s been developed that’s more sensitive and specific. There’s that constant movement between methods as new tests are developed.”

In recent years, this quest has been leading clinical laboratories away from Western blotting toward more sensitive and specific diagnostic assays, at least for some diseases. Using confirmatory diagnosis of HCV infection as an example, Sai Patibandla, PhD, director of the immunoassay group at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, explained that movement away from Western blotting for confirmatory diagnosis of HCV infection began with a technical modification called Recombinant Immunoblotting Assay (RIBA). RIBA streamlines the conventional Western blot protocol by spotting recombinant antigen onto strips which are used to screen patient samples for antibodies against HCV. This approach eliminates the need to separate proteins and transfer them onto a membrane.

The RIBA HCV assay was initially manufactured by Chiron Corporation (acquired by Novartics Vaccines and Diagnostics in 2006). It received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 1999, and was marketed as Chiron RIBA HCV 3.0 Strip Immunoblot Assay. Patibandla explained that, at the time, the Chiron assay “…was the only FDA-approved confirmatory testing for HCV.” In 2013 the assay was discontinued and withdrawn from the market due to reports that it was producing false-positive results.

Since then, clinical laboratories have continued to move away from Western blot-based assays for confirmation of HCV in favor of the more sensitive technique of nucleic acid testing (NAT). “The migration is toward NAT for confirmation of HCV [diagnosis]. We don’t use immunoblots anymore. We don’t even have a blot now to confirm HCV,” Patibandla said.

Confirming HIV infection has followed a similar path. Indeed, in 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated recommendations for HIV testing that, in part, replaced Western blotting with NAT. This change was in response to the recognition that the HIV-1 Western blot assay was producing false-negative or indeterminable results early in the course of HIV infection.

At this juncture it is difficult to predict if this trend away from Western blotting in clinical laboratories will continue. One thing that is certain, however, is that clinicians and laboratorians are infinitely pragmatic, and will eagerly replace current techniques with ones shown to be more sensitive, specific, and effective. This raises the question of whether any of the many efforts currently underway to improve Western blotting will produce an assay that exceeds the sensitivity of currently employed techniques such as NAT.

Some of the most exciting and groundbreaking work in this area is being done by Amy Herr, PhD, a professor of bioengineering at University of California, Berkeley. Herr’s group has taken on some of the most challenging limitations of Western blotting, and is developing techniques that could revolutionize the assay. For example, the Western blot is semi-quantitative at best. This weakness dramatically limits the types of answers it can provide about changes in protein concentrations under various conditions.

To make Western blotting more quantitative, Herr’s group is, among other things, identifying losses of protein sample mass during the assay protocol. About this, Herr explains that the conventional Western blot is an “open system” that involves lots of handling of assay materials, buffers, and reagents that makes it difficult to account for protein losses. Or, as Kevin Lowitz, a senior product manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific, described it, “Western blot is a [simple] technique, but a really laborious one, and there are just so many steps and so many opportunities to mess it up.”

Herr’s approach is to reduce the open aspects of Western blot. “We’ve been developing these more closed systems that allow us at each stage of the assay to account for [protein mass] losses. We can’t do this exactly for every target of interest, but it gives us a really good handle [on protein mass losses],” she said. One of the major mechanisms Herr’s lab is using to accomplish this is to secure proteins to the blot matrix with covalent bonding rather than with the much weaker hydrophobic interactions that typically keep the proteins in place on the membrane.

Herr’s group also has been developing microfluidic platforms that allow Western blotting to be done on single cells, “In our system we’re doing thousands of independent Westerns on single cells in four hours. And, hopefully, we’ll cut that down to one hour over the next couple years.”

Other exciting modifications that stand to dramatically increase the sensitivity, quantitation, and through-put of Western blotting also are being developed and explored. For example, the use of capillary electrophoresis—in which proteins are conveyed through a small electrolyte-filled tube and separated according to size and charge before being dropped onto a blotting membrane—dramatically reduces the amount of protein required for Western blot analysis, and thereby allows Westerns to be run on proteins from rare cells or for which quantities of sample are extremely limited.

Jillian Silva, PhD, an associate specialist at the University of California, San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, explained that advances in detection are also extending the capabilities of Western blotting. “With the advent of fluorescence detection we have a way to quantitate Westerns, and it is now more quantitative than it’s ever been,” said Silva.

Whether or not these advances produce an assay that is adopted by clinical laboratories remains to be seen. The emphasis on Western blotting as a research rather than a clinical tool may bias advances in favor of the needs and priorities of researchers rather than clinicians, and as Patibandla pointed out, “In the research world Western blotting has a certain purpose. [Researchers] are always coming up with new things, and are trying to nail down new proteins, so you cannot take Western blotting away.” In contrast, she suggested that for now, clinical uses of Western blotting remain “limited.”

Curtis Balmer, PhD, is a freelance writer in Potomac Falls, Virginia. +Email: curtis@bluegroovecommunications.com