2 young scientists receive Lupus Foundation grants for research

Work to focus on pregnancy outcomes and personalized tests and treatments

Andrea Lobo, PhD avatar

by Andrea Lobo, PhD |

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Two people each hold a side of a giant check amid balloons and confetti.

This year’s winners of the Lupus Foundation of America‘s Gary S. Gilkeson Career Development Award — designed to support early career scientists working on lupus research — will focus their work on areas key to patients with the autoimmune disease: pregnancy and personalized medicine.

Both winners are from universities in California. Rashmi Dhital, MD, from the University of California, San Diego, will research the disease’s impact on pregnancy outcomes. Siva Kasinathan, MD, PhD, from the Stanford University School of Medicine, will delve into genetic changes that may lead to the development of personalized tests and treatments.

The two-year grant includes mentorship provided by experienced physician scientists, who will guide the awardees to continue their careers in research into lupus.

“The Lupus Foundation of America’s Gary S. Gilkeson Career Development Award not only provides funding that is often difficult to obtain for early career scientists, but the mentorship that is so important in establishing a strong career in lupus research,” Karen H. Costenbader, MD, chair of the medical-scientific advisory council of the Lupus Foundation, said in a press release.

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Grant winners are paired with mentors to further their research in lupus

Lupus occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissues. It can affect nearly every part of the body, resulting in a range of symptoms.

Dhital’s work aims to understand the health issues faced by pregnant women with lupus, especially those of non-white races.

From a previous database analysis, Dhital and her team found that women with lupus are at a higher risk of developing problems in the heart and blood vessels during pregnancy.

Now she will assess the risk of pregnancy complications, such as premature birth, death of the baby before or during delivery, and babies born small, in women with lupus who have heart and blood vessel problems. Her research will compare those findings with the risks for women without lupus who have similar problems, and those with lupus who lack such problems.

Her team also will analyze if the risk of heart/blood vessel problems varies according to a women’s race, and whether these issues impact pregnancy outcomes.

The findings could contribute to identifying measures that can reduce such risks and improve pregnancy outcomes in all women with lupus.

Dhital’s project will be conducted under the mentorship of Kenneth Kalunian, MD, professor of medicine, and Christina Chambers, PhD, professor of pediatrics, both at UC San Diego.

We need to grow the lupus research field, and this grant provides an incredible opportunity for outstanding young, talented minds to dedicate themselves to finding the next breakthrough in lupus.

With his award, Kasinathan will use gene sequencing to identify non-inherited genetic mutations — the so-called somatic mutations — that also may play a role in lupus.

His research will be conducted under the supervision of Paul J. Utz, MD, professor of immunology and rheumatology, and Ansuman Satpathy, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology, both at the university’s school of medicine.

Kasinathan’s project will look for mutations in T cells — immune cells that play an important role in lupus — by comparing those gathered from people with lupus with those taken from healthy individuals.

Then, the young scientist and his team will study if there is a connection between uninherited mutations and lupus.

What this project finds could help in the development of personalized tests and treatments for people with lupus, an emerging approach based on individual differences to identify patients who will benefit from specific therapies.

“This is the most critical time in a young physician scientist’s career, and without awards like the Lupus Foundation of America’s Gary S. Gilkeson Career Development Award, many trainees would not have the support they need,” Utz said.

“We need to grow the lupus research field, and this grant provides an incredible opportunity for outstanding young, talented minds to dedicate themselves to finding the next breakthrough in lupus,” he said.

These studies will contribute to advancing the Lupus Foundation’s pledge to research, including the program to address health disparities in race and ethnic minorities. That program is officially called Lupus AIM (Addressing Health Inequities in Minorities).