Lupus Research Alliance Picks the Top 10 Innovative Projects It Will Fund

Patricia Inacio, PhD avatar

by Patricia Inacio, PhD |

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funds from Lupus Research Alliance

The Lupus Research Alliance has chosen its Novel Research Grant Class of 2017, which consists of 10 projects that represent innovative approaches in lupus-treatment development.

“Standing on a 16-year foundation of documented success, the Novel Research Grants bring new insight and untried directions to the complexities of lupus,” Margaret Dowd, the Lupus Research Alliance’s co-CEO, said in a press release. “The program works because we create a space where scientists are encouraged to explore at the frontiers of current knowledge and to imagine without limits.”

Understanding the immune system mistakes that lead to lupus

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks healthy tissue. Four of the 10 projects that the alliance selected will explore novel strategies for correcting the immune system’s mistake.

Mridu Acharya, PhD, of the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason, found a previously unknown immune pathway linked to lupus. Normally the group of proteins prevents a key class of immune cells, called B-cells, from producing molecules that target patients’ healthy cells. Working with B-cells, Acharya will investigate what fails in these proteins’ functioning to trigger lupus.

Shaun Jackson, MD, PhD, of Seattle Children’s Hospital, is also focusing on B-cells. He will investigate the role of two recently identified molecules that have also been shown to promote B-cells’ immune attacks. Understating the mechanisms triggering these molecules will lay the foundation for targeted lupus treatments.

Christian Lood, PhD, of the University of Washington, will study whether lupus cells are unable to remove excessive energy-producing organelles called mitochondria. Their accumulation may trigger the hyper-inflammation that leads to lupus. This represents a novel approach to finding new disease-combatting strategies.

Zhiqiang Zhang, PhD, of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute, will continue his work on a newly discovered protein called APEX1. It works as a distress signal to tell our immune system that something is wrong and that it needs to activate a defense. Knowing how to prevent this false signal may lead to a new therapeutic approach for the disease.

Getting the Immune System Off Healthy Cells

Three of this year’s grant recipients will explore new ways to prevent the immune system from mistaking healthy cells as dangerous.

Guo-Ping Shi, ScD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, will continue to work with a group of immune cells called regulatory T-cells. They are crucial to maintaining immune tolerance, or shutting down immune responses when they are no longer needed. This mechanism prevents the rise of autoimmune diseases. Shi will investigate a specific protein, the enzyme Cathepsin S.

Natalia Giltiay, PhD, of the University of Washington, wants to re-educate lupus patients’ immune system to tolerate healthy cells. This strategy has never been applied in lupus research.

Anthony Rongvaux, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, will take advantage of new technologies to investigate a mechanism that may trigger or worsen lupus. The results of his research may identify new treatment-development targets.

From the Old might Come the New

Developing drugs is not only expensive, but time-consuming. Thankfully, scientists are discovering that drugs already approved for a certain disease may work against other diseases as well. Two grant recipients will investigate whether therapies for lupus are already available.

Vipin Kumar, PhD, of the University of California at San Diego, will investigate whether a drug used to fight tropical parasites can prevent and treat kidney damage in lupus.

John Zhang, DVM, PhD, of the Medical University of South Carolina, will use human cells to test whether the chemotherapy drug topotecan can reduce inflammation in lupus. Zhang has previously shown that the protein that topotecan targets, called Fli-1, worsens lupus symptoms.

Ameliorating the Lives of Young People with Lupus

Lupus in children may lead to severe symptoms. Fifty percent develop neuropsychiatric disorders, for example. But few receive the appropriate mental healthcare. One of the 2017 class will investigate whether magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can improve the care of these children.

Andrea Knight, MD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, will continue trying to develop a new biomarker for detecting neuropsychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, in children with lupus. This will allow early detection so that children can receive proper treatment without delay.

Overall, the class of 2017 projects hold great promise for developing newer and more effective therapies for lupus.