U of A professor honoured for revolutionizing treatment of autoimmune diseases

Jan Willem Cohen Tervaert will receive a lifetime contribution award at the International Congress on Autoimmunity.

2 April 2024

Jan Willem Cohen Tervaert, a rheumatologist, clinical immunologist and internal medicine specialist in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Division of Rheumatology, will be honoured with a Lifetime Contribution to Autoimmunity Award 2024 at the 14th International Congress on Autoimmunity.

The International Congress on Autoimmunity, held every two years, is the largest multidisciplinary congress covering more than 80 autoimmune diseases. More than 3,000 participants enhance their knowledge of autoimmunology at this event.

The Lifetime Contribution to Autoimmunity Award recognizes researchers who have contributed significantly to the field of autoimmunology. The award has been bestowed eight times since 2004, with Cohen Tervaert the second Canadian and the first from the Netherlands to receive it.

“This is a very important award for people in the autoimmune disease research community,” says Cohen Tervaert. “Noel Rose, the ‘father of autoimmunity’ as he’s known, was the first to receive it in 2004. I have great respect for him and became friends with him when we both were members of a World Health Organization (WHO) committee that assessed autoimmunity following exposure to chemicals. It’s a tremendous honour.”

Cohen Tervaert’s research focuses on vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) and rheumatic diseases that develop after implantation.

His studies have shown inflammation and autoimmune diseases can develop after patients have breast implants, hip and knee implants, and soft tissue repairs using synthetic surgical materials.

“Our lab is currently focused on fatigue caused by autoimmune diseases. Although we’re able to treat many of these diseases now, the quality of life for patients can still be quite poor because of the severe fatigue they often experience,” he says.

“One in 10 people suffer from an autoimmune disease. For women, it’s the most common cause of mortality below the age of 65. So it is an important field not only for patients and clinicians but also for researchers.”

Cohen Tervaert’s work includes breakthroughs that have had a global impact.

In 1987, his group discovered groundbreaking tests - MPO-anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies (ANCA) and PR3-ANCA tests - for the diagnosis of vasculitis, revolutionizing the diagnosis, understanding and treatment of vasculitis.

In 2018, he published a study showing that surgically implanted polypropylene mesh contributed to cases of autoimmune syndrome by adjuvants (ASIA), also known as Shoenfeld’s syndrome. His work contributed to the withdrawal of mesh for transvaginal repair of pelvic organ prolapse in 2019 by the United States and Canada.

Cohen Tervaert is currently part of a research team that believes long-COVID patients face symptoms identical to chronic fatigue syndrome and is working to find treatments for patients with long-COVID.

“In the last few years, we’ve taken on COVID research. We’re trying to find treatments for long-COVID, where patients face symptoms identical to chronic fatigue syndrome. The immune system’s response may be the cause of these symptoms. In addition, blood samples show severe amino acid deficiencies, which are correlated with the brain fog in these patients with long-COVID suggesting that supplementation with these amino acids may improve their symptoms,” he says.

Cohen Tervaert is an experienced teacher and has taken on many mentorship roles for students, residents and junior staff members at the University of Alberta.

“Alison Clifford and Mohamed Osman have been my major mentees since coming to the U of A. Dr. Clifford has become a major player in the field of vasculitis and Dr. Osman is a promising young researcher. Our lab has PhD and medical students with a lot of potential in this field,” he says.

Cohen Tervaert is a founding member of the Autoimmunity Consortium, the North American Vascular Biology Organization and the Dutch Vasculitis Study Group. He was an expert member of a WHO committee assessing autoimmunity associated with chemical exposure and of the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment Committee on Chromium-VI. He was also a Health Council of the Netherlands committee member on chronic fatigue syndrome.

He is the author or co-author of more than 480 scientific articles, with his work being cited more than 40,000 times, and has served on the editorial board of several journals including Clinical and Experimental Immunology.