7 lupus research projects win LRA Innovation Award grants

Teams in US, Europe awarded up to $300K for 'critical' research

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by Mary Chapman |

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A scientist looks through a microscope in a lab, with test tubes and a flask on the counter nearby.

Seven projects led by research teams from the U.S. and Europe have been announced as the recipients of the latest round of Lupus Research Alliance (LRA) Lupus Innovation Award (LIA) grants, which can total up to $300,000.

The awards provide support — up to $150,000 annually for two years — for highly innovative approaches to major challenges in lupus, a chronic disorder marked by immune system attacks against the body’s own healthy tissue.

In awarding the grants, the LRA each year pays special attention to “high-risk, high-reward” lupus investigations that explore fundamental mechanisms, novel targets and pathways, innovative technologies, and interdisciplinary research strategies, the nonprofit states on its website.

“We are proud to be able to offer these grants, which support critical lupus research and encourage the development of novel therapeutic approaches,” Teodora Staeva, PhD, the LRA’s vice president and chief scientific officer, said in a press release.

“The talented Lupus Innovation Award recipients are pushing the edge of lupus research, with the goal of improving the lives of people with lupus,” Staeva said.

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Research projects are ‘high-risk, high-reward’

The grant program is open to both early career investigators and established scientists. Early-stage researchers are eligible for an additional year of funding following completion of the original grant.

Collectively, awarded studies for this grant round focused on the causes of lupus and the development of more personalized therapeutic approaches. Because of the broad range of lupus causes and its symptoms, researching the disorder from multiple, disparate angles can lead to a greater understanding of the disease, which could result in better treatments, the nonprofit noted.

Two projects seek to identify novel lupus drivers, while two others explore new treatment targets. Three of the awarded studies aim to develop innovative approaches and tools to diagnose and monitor disease complications.

The two projects focused on identifying new disease drivers are being led by Ansuman Satpathy, MD, PhD, from Stanford University School of Medicine, in the U.S., and Salomé Pinho, PhD, from the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health (i3S), in Portugal.

Satpathy will use the grant to explore the impact of somatic mutations — non-hereditary mutations that arise during a person’s life — in immune cells, including T-cells, in patients and healthy individuals. The goal is to investigate how such mutations can affect the immune system. The hope is that more knowledge in this area will lead to improved diagnosis and treatments for lupus.

Meanwhile, Pinho will explore whether modifying a process called glycosylation — the addition of sugar chains to proteins — in lupus kidneys fosters lupus development. The topic has never been investigated in the context of lupus.

The awardees of the projects focused on exploring new therapeutic targets for lupus include Sladjana Skopelja-Gardner, PhD, from the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and Maximilian F. Konig, MD, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, both in the U.S.

Skopelja-Gardner will explore how a protein called V-domain immunoglobin suppressor of T-cell activation, or VISTA, regulates interferon production in the skin of lupus patients. Interferons are signaling molecules that are known to be involved in the immune and inflammatory responses seen in lupus. The aim is to better understand how interferon production is controlled, which could lead to new therapeutic targets for lupus skin disease and photosensitivity.

Konig will seek to develop a novel protein-based precision therapy approach to target disease-causing cells in antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) — a condition driven by hyperactive immune B-cells that produce antibodies against a person’s own proteins. The project could establish the foundation for highly optimized APS therapies in lupus patients that would eliminate rogue B-cells that generate disease-causing antibodies, but without harming normal B-cells.

The talented Lupus Innovation Award recipients are pushing the edge of lupus research, with the goal of improving the lives of people with lupus.

The remaining three projects will focus on the development of new tools and methods to diagnose and/or monitor lupus complications.

One of them will be led by Andrea Fava, MD, also from Johns Hopkins. Fava seeks to identify new biomarkers in lupus nephritis, which could lead to the development of an innovative noninvasive test to detect the condition early on, before kidney damage occurs. This could lead to more opportunities to prevent irreversible kidney damage in lupus patients.

Another project by Eric Gale, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, will seek to develop technology involving contrast dye to non-invasively diagnose and monitor lupus nephritis. By visualizing the activity of lupus nephritis through an MRI scan, physicians may directly gauge patients’ responses to treatment without conducting a biopsy, which is invasive. The success of this project could ultimately improve patients’ life quality.

The last project will be led by Mark DiFrancesco, PhD, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. DiFrancesco’s study will focus on neuropsychiatric lupus, thought to affect about 40% of patients, and the protective barrier that separate the brain from the blood. The project aims to heighten the understanding of how lupus affects the brain and help find prospective treatment targets for neuropsychiatric lupus.