6 young scientists awarded LFA fellowship grants for lupus research

$4K funding provided for research-related activities during summer

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by Mary Chapman |

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The six recipients of Lupus Foundation of America (LFA)’s 2024 fellowships for young scientists will use their awards to study several areas of lupus, ranging from lupus nephritis to the connection between physical activity and physical function in people with the autoimmune disease.

The goal of the 40-year-old program, called Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Summer Fellowship Program, is to foster interest in lupus research among undergraduate, graduate, and medical students. It honors Gina M. Finzi, the late daughter of Sergio Finzi, PhD, former president of LFA.

“The only way to ensure breakthroughs in lupus treatment and care is to invest in the next generation of promising scientists,” Joy Buie, PhD, LFA’s vice president of research, said in an LFA press release.

Each fellow, who may use up to $4,000 in funding for research-related activities during the summer, must be sponsored and supervised by an experienced tenure-track principal investigator whose lab is at least partly dedicated to lupus research at an academic, medical, or research institution in the U.S., Mexico, or Canada.

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Program has supported work of nearly 250 researchers since 1984

Applicants must also submit a final progress report detailing research outcomes, and agree to at least one post-award call update with the foundation. Since 1984, the fellowship has supported the work of nearly 250 investigators.

The fellowship program “reinforces to the student the importance of their work in understanding lupus and how this impacts care of patients with this disease,” said Joseph Craft, MD, a professor at Yale School of Medicine and mentor to a 2024 award recipient.

“It also strengthens the student’s commitment to pursuing a career in care and treatment of patients, and investigating cause and treatment for lupus,” Craft added.

This year’s class of fellows:

  • Jafar Al Souz, of Yale School of Medicine, will work on a project, titled “Lymphoid and Kidney-infiltrating CD8 T Cells in Lupus Nephritis,” which uses mouse models to determine the role of a specific subset of immune T-cells in lupus nephritis, a disease complication marked by kidney inflammation and damage.
  • The awarded project of Alberto Nordmann-Gomes, of the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Medicas y Nutricion Salvador Zubiran, in Mexico City, Mexico, is titled “Lupus Nephritis Guidelines: Evidence Gaps and Underrepresented Groups.” The study is expected to help identify the populations that may benefit from therapies recommended in clinical practice guidelines, in addition to populations where information is lacking and guidelines may not apply.
  • Chun-Chen Lin, of The Regents of the University of Michigan, is pursuing the project “Improving Measurement and Identifying Predictors of Activity and Function” to enhance knowledge about the link between physical activity and physical function in lupus. By analyzing data from an ongoing observational study that is tracking lupus patients’ daily functions with technology-assisted tools, the researchers aim to develop personalized treatment plans to promote physical activity and enhance the overall health and well-being of patients.
  • “Brain Injury and Inflammation in Childhood-Onset Systemic Lupus Erythematosus” is the title of the awarded project of Ganesh Ramanathan, of The Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto, Ontario. The project seeks to understand how childhood-onset lupus, thought to affect about 20% of lupus patients, impacts the brain. The researchers will compare levels of blood markers of brain injury between children with and without lupus, and assess potential links between these markers and lupus features. Results are expected to improve identification of young patients at risk for brain involvement due to lupus.
  • Kierra Franklin, of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Tech, will use her fellowship to conduct a project called “Determining the Impact of MeCP2/DNMTI Imbalance in Epigenetic Dysregulation.” Epigenetic modifications refer to the addition of chemical marks to DNA by a group of specialized enzymes that influence the activities of genes without altering their underlying DNA sequence. The goal is to identify the role and interactions of key epigenetic enzymes in the gene activity and function of another subset of T-cells. This is expected to help improve understanding of lupus flares — periods of disease exacerbations — and lead to better treatment options.
  • Finally, the project of Andrew Van Horn, of the Oregon Health & Science University, called “Defining the Role of NOD2 in Autoimmunity and Renal Candida Resistance” aims to discover the mechanisms by which an immune sensor protein affects antifungal immunity in kidneys and triggers autoinflammation. Given that lupus patients with kidney disease are often affected by fungal infections that can be lethal, the findings may help point to new targets for treating kidney disease and fungal infections in these patients.

Former fellowship recipients have gone on to become lupus experts, according to LFA.

“The Lupus Foundation of America’s Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Fellowship Program highlights our commitment to nurturing those that will transform the future of lupus research,” Buie said. “The program doesn’t just stop at funding the research of these young scientists, but also invests in their development and personal goals.”