Virginia Pascual Receives Lupus Insight Prize for Work on Events That Lead to Flare-ups

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by Ines Martins, PhD |

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New York researcher Virginia Pascual has received the $150,000 Lupus Insight Prize for work that promises to improve our understanding of events leading to the disease’s flare-ups.

Pascual is a pioneer in lupus biomarkers, or molecular signals of the disease. She was recently appointed founding director of the Gale and Ira Drukier Institute for Children’s Health at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

The Lupus Research Alliance, which sponsors the prize, awarded it to her at the annual meeting of the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies in Chicago, June 14-17.

“Dr. Pascual was selected for the Insight Prize because of her scientific vision and dedication to improving the lives and health of all those living with or at risk of lupus,” Margaret Dowd, the alliance’s co-president and co-chief executive officer, said in a press release. “Her work is creating a paradigm shift in the lupus field by opening new avenues for personalized drug development and pointing the way to better, more effective clinical trial design.”

Pascual will use the prize to analyze regularly collected blood samples from children with lupus. By collecting samples before a flare-up appears, her team hopes to identify biomarkers of lupus’ earliest stages.

One of their research tools will be a technology that can dissect gene expression in one cell at a time. Expression is the process by which information from a gene is used to create a functional product like a protein.

“Dr. Pascual’s 2017 Lupus Insight Prize builds on her transformative biomarker discoveries to identify the changes in blood cells that occur as lupus progresses from remission, when symptoms are lessened, to a disease flare, when symptoms are worse,” said Kenneth M. Farber, the Lupus Research Alliance’s other co-president and co-CEO.

The research will start with children whose lupus is inactive at the time the study begins. Pascual’s team hopes the research reveals molecular processes that drug developers can target. The ultimate goal is therapies that can prevent flare-ups, which can damage vital organs.

Pascual has worked with children who have lupus for 25 years. Her studies of biomarkers are generating new road maps for lupus research that could lead to earlier and better diagnostic tools and tailored approaches to treatment.

In 2016, her team identified changes in children’s blood samples over time that doctors could use as biomarkers of lupus activity. The breakthrough led to the team developing seven categories of lupus in children, each with its own patterns of biomarkers.

The categories amounted to the first model of the disease’s course. The breakthrough overcame a huge obstacle in lupus research and care — an inability to predict when and where it was heading. The difficulty is that lupus varies from patient to patient. It has diverse symptoms, progresses through different remission and flare-up cycles, and its severity differs with the person.

Lupus’ variability is a major reason why many therapies have failed in clinical trials. Pascual’s work could result in tailored therapies that can be tested in trials of patients with particular biomarker patterns.

The Lupus Insight Prize recognizes innovative research that leads to important new understandings of lupus or major advances in the disease’s diagnosis and treatment.