Michigan Medicine Team Receives $10.2M to Seek Potential Therapies for Lupus, Other Autoimmune Diseases

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by Mary Chapman |

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Michigan Medicine researchers were granted up to $10.2 million by the Autoimmunity Centers of Excellence (ACE) to develop new projects seeking treatments for autoimmune diseases including lupus.

In particular, the team from the University of Michigan’s academic medical center is focused on exploring the relationship between molecular targets and autoimmune inflammation, as well as on new strategies to manage autoimmunity without constraining the immune system’s ability to battle infection.

The researchers hope to have results from these projects within three to five years.

“We have the opportunity at Michigan Medicine to conduct extensive translational research, in a clinical trial setting, on autoimmune diseases, which allows us to provide the newest, targeted and personalized therapies to our patients,” Dinesh Khanna, MD, director of the Michigan Medicine Scleroderma Program, said in a news release.

J. Michelle Kahlenberg, MD, PhD, an associate professor of rheumatology, will lead the lupus project. She and her collaborators will test how the therapy tofacitinib fares as a treatment for cutaneous lupus, a disorder in which the immune system specifically affects the skin.

Marketed as Xeljanz by Pfizer, tofacitinib is a pan-JAK inhibitor with predominant anti-JAK3 effect. This therapy inhibits janus kinases (JAK) signals that play an important role in regulating the response of immune cells and their pro-inflammatory activities.

Previous studies have suggested that inhibition of JAK enzymes could be a potential strategy to treat cutaneous lupus patients. To date, Xeljanz has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration for the treatment of psoriatic and rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis.

The new research project will build upon Kahlenberg’s earlier investigations about a signaling protein linked to light sensitivity in lupus patients. The new project seeks to offer further evidence that impeding the protein’s signals can provide protection from ultraviolet light. It will also examine how tofacitinib may prevent the effects of this protein in lupus. Based on the findings of this study, the team expects to pave the way for the development of “more targeted and less toxic therapies for our lupus patients,” Kahlenberg said.

David Fox, MD, a professor at Michigan Medicine, will lead another project that explores new molecular targets for a variety of autoimmune disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, scleroderma, and autoimmune eye diseases.

“This project will be an opportunity to take new discoveries related to rheumatoid arthritis and apply this progress to the study of many other autoimmune diseases that affect multiple organs and tissues in our patients, with the ultimate goal of safer and more effective treatment,” he said.