Weill Cornell Researcher Awarded $150,000 Lupus Insight Prize for Study on Flares

Ines Martins, PhD avatar

by Ines Martins, PhD |

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The director of the Gale and Ira Drukier Institute for Children’s Health at Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Virginia Pascual, received the Lupus Insight Prize for a project that shows great promise in increasing our understanding of the events that lead to lupus flares.

The Lupus Research Alliance $150,000 prize was awarded to Pascual on June 15 at the Federation of Clinical Immunological Societies’ 17th annual meeting (FOCIS 2017) in Chicago.

“I’m very honored to have been selected by my peers, and am committed to understanding the disease and bringing new therapies to children with lupus,” Pascual said in a Weill Cornell Medicine news piece.

In the past, most research on lupus had focused on what happens to our immune system at the time of flares. While this knowledge is valuable, it has shown to be insufficient to explain why a lupus patient might feel well one day and then suffer from flares the next day.

Pascual aimed to increase our understanding of how lupus flares develop. To do that, she monitored the results of frequent blood samples from 158 children previously diagnosed with lupus, but whose disease was not yet active, in a four-year trial.

By observing how genes were expressed in cells at a specific time, Pascual wanted to identify biomarkers of the early stages of disease activity in a way so detailed it had never been attempted before.

Aiming to find new pathways for the development of treatments that could block lupus flares before the disease begins damaging vital organs, Pascual started with children whose lupus was not active to improve on earlier studies and eliminate the effects of treatments on biomarkers in the children’s blood.

In the study, the team identified many changes that could serve as biomarkers of lupus disease activity. Specifically, Pascual found that children could be divided into seven distinct groups, each with its own pattern of these biomarkers. This observation addressed one of the greatest roadblocks in lupus research, as individuals tend to exhibit diverse symptoms that progress at different rates and with variable levels of severity.

“If we can identify what is changing in the immune system of each patient before symptoms appear, we will be able to develop personalized treatments,” Pascual said. “The ultimate goal is to prevent a flare from happening.”

Because of Pascual and her team, other lupus researchers can also move on to design more personalized treatments and test them in trials specifically targeted to patients with a specific biomarker pattern.

Pascual has worked with lupus patients for more than 25 years. Her studies have focused on understanding the root causes of autoimmune diseases such as lupus in children.

Her findings on lupus biomarkers are generating new road maps in lupus research, and are paving the way for earlier, personalized approaches to treatment.

The Lupus Insight Prize recognizes significant new insights or discoveries that have the potential to change how we think about lupus and that can lead to advances in diagnosis or treatment.