Lupus Research Alliance gives awards to 5 minority researchers

The awards, totaling up to $2.5M, aim to promote diversity, reduce disparities

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by Margarida Maia |

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The Lupus Research Alliance has named the winners of this year’s Awards to Promote Diversity in Lupus Research, all from underrepresented minority groups who are interested in studying lupus.

Four researchers were selected to receive a Career Development Award, which provides up to $600,000 over four years to early-career researchers from underrepresented minority groups who are taking steps to establish their own research program.

The winners are Alí Duarte-García, MD, from the Mayo Clinic; Maria Gutierrez-Arcelus, PhD, from Boston Children’s Hospital; Ekemini Ogbu, MD, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; and Jessica Williams, MD, from Emory University.

Shady Younis, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, was selected to receive the Postdoctoral Award, which grants up to $170,000 over two years to help generate data and unique ideas before becoming an independent researcher.

“We congratulate the recipients of the 2023 Diversity in Lupus Research Awards, which were created to promote an outstanding, diverse scientific pool of lupus researchers,” Teodora Staeva, PhD, chief scientific officer at the Lupus Research Alliance, said in a press release.

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Addressing disparities in diversity, health outcomes in lupus

People of color and other minority groups are underrepresented in science.

“Addressing these disparities will require a diverse workforce to ensure equitable opportunities and optimal health outcomes,” Staeva said. “To foster the development of talented underrepresented minority early-career scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and research trainees, the [Lupus Research Alliance] launched a comprehensive Diversity in Lupus Research Program last year that’s already supported 21 researchers in the lupus field.”

Duarte-García will study the safety and effectiveness of using corticosteroids with lupus, especially considering factors like race and ethnicity. The goal is to create a standard way to use these medications that works well for everyone.

Lupus can cause a combination of symptoms, which can range from mild to severe. People of color tend to have lupus more frequently and have more severe symptoms. The disease is better managed if diagnosed and treated early, usually with corticosteroids and other medications.

By analyzing data from people with lupus nephritis (kidney inflammation), Duarte-García wants to find the best way to prescribe corticosteroids to get the most benefit while reducing infections, deaths and other problems that can happen with their use.

Gutierrez-Arcelus will study why lupus shows so much variation across people. She will study whether specific gene mutations affect alternative splicing, the process by which a gene can produce different proteins with unique structures and functions by cutting and joining different parts together.

People with lupus are at a higher risk of stroke, which can happen due to poor blood supply to a part of the brain. The risk is higher after a severe flare-up or in some people of color.

Ogbu wants to identify biomarkers that could tell who’s at risk of stroke and distinguish children with lupus and stroke from other cases of stroke. These biomarkers could help doctors prevent, monitor, and better manage stroke in children with lupus.

Williams will run a survey in rural Georgia to learn whether there are environmental or social factors that contribute to the higher concentration of lupus cases in the region.

By doing so, Williams aims to understand and address the barriers that prevent people in rural areas from receiving proper treatment, accessing healthcare services, and participating in research. She hopes to find ways to overcome these obstacles.

Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), best known as the cause of infectious mononucleosis, or mono, is linked to a higher risk of lupus and other autoimmune diseases.

Younis will study how the EBV affects B-cells, a type of antibody-producing immune cell that often go awry with lupus. Understanding the role of EBV in lupus could aid in developing treatments for the disease.

“We look forward to seeing how their studies progress toward understanding the mechanisms underlying lupus and developing novel treatment approaches,” Staeva said. “We see great promise in the work these talented professionals are doing and are encouraged by their commitment to lupus research.”