5 young scientists win Lupus Foundation of America support

Finzi fellowship program winners conducting mentored research into disease

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by Patricia Inacio, PhD |

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The Lupus Foundation of America has announced this year’s winners of the Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Summer Fellowship Program, designed to support students working in lupus research.

Each award, worth $4,000, includes mentorship by an experienced researcher in the field of lupus.

Winners, all young scientists, are pursuing work in key areas of lupus investigation. These include cognitive deficits in lupus; cutaneous lupus, a form affecting predominately the skin; communication strategies for patients and clinicians; lupus and pregnancy; and further understanding of the disease and potential treatment pathways.

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“If we want the future of lupus research to be driven by innovation and new breakthroughs, we must invest in and nurture our young scientists,” Joy Buie, PhD, director of research for the foundation, said in the organization’s press release.

“The Lupus Foundation of America’s Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Fellowship Program shows our investment in the future minds that will transform lupus research. The program not only provides research funding but the mentorship that will continue to shape their future aspirations,” Buie added.

Work by Fatima Debek, at the Toronto Western Hospital’s Krembil Research Institute in Canada, aims to identify discrepancies between patient-reported and clinician-reported measures of cognitive impairment in lupus.

The project, conducted under the supervision of Zahi Touma, MD, PhD, entails evaluating demographic, clinical, and self-reported cognitive outcomes of 300 lupus patients followed at the University of Toronto Lupus Clinic.

Debek also will look into a potential link between subjective and objective cognitive tools and measures of health-related quality of life. The researchers believe that findings will help in better patient-centered care and improve health-related quality of life.

Felix Chin, with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, received the fellowship for a project focused on the development of new computational tools to analyze imaging mass cytometry (IMC) data from cutaneous lupus patients. His mentor will be Victoria P. Werth, MD.

A cutting-edge technique, IMC allows researchers to look at individual cells in a skin biopsy and identify unique patterns.

Comparing patterns among patients, such as those who respond to a certain type of treatment, could bring a better understanding of cells and pathways important in the onset and progression of cutaneous lupus. It also might identify factors that help to predict treatment response and improve disease management.

Mia Barron, with the University of Rochester and the University of South Carolina College of Nursing, is seeking to identify better and more effective communication strategies for clinicians and African American lupus patients. African Americans are known to experience more severe lupus symptoms and have poorer outcomes. She will be mentored by Edith M. Williams, PhD, at Rochester and Robin M. Dawson, PhD, at South Carolina.

Studies into African Americans, cellular energy, and pregnancy with lupus

Kathryn Sullivan, at the University of Alabama-Birmingham School of Medicine, will investigate potential reasons for lupus being more prevalent among women than men — estimates point to a patient ratio by sex of 9 to 1.

The project, conducted with mentor John D. Mountz, MD, PhD, will evaluate whether an imbalance in energy production may promote more aggressive autoimmune attacks in women.

Using mouse models, Sullivan will assess if immune cells of female mice produce more energy, and whether the resulting imbalance prompts the cells’ activation. These findings are expected to advance researchers’ understating of a sex bias in lupus, and help in developing new therapeutic approaches.

Carolin Sophia Coenen, at Yale School of Medicine, will focus on how antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), a lupus-associated autoimmune condition, can complicate a pregnancy. APS is induced by antibodies against phospholipids, a major component of all cell membranes, including the placenta.

Conducted under the mentorship of Vikki M. Abrahams, PhD, her project will assess how anti-phospholipid antibodies impair communication between the placenta and the blood vessels of the woman’s uterus.

Study findings are likely to help in identifying women with higher risk pregnancies and to contribute to developing treatment options that ultimately improve outcomes for the mother and child.

“The Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Summer Fellowship program gives students early in their career the opportunity to conduct cutting edge research in the field of lupus,” said Abrahams, Coenen’s mentor.

The fellowship program was established in 1984 in honor of Gina M. Finzi, the late daughter of former Lupus Foundation of America president Sergio Finzi, PhD. Work developed by previous awardees have led to innovative and groundbreaking studies, the foundation noted, and previous winners now are distinguished lupus researchers.