OMRF named an Autoimmunity Center of Excellence

The National Institutes of Health has once again designated OMRF an Autoimmunity Center of Excellence.

With this renewed federal designation comes a new five-year grant of $2.38 million to fund research on lupus and other autoimmune diseases at OMRF. Additional funds for research and clinical trials are also coming to OMRF.

Currently, OMRF is one of only 10 sites—along with such academic medical centers such as the University of Chicago, Harvard and Stanford—to earn the ACE designation.

Led by principal investigator Judith James, M.D. Ph.D., a team of OMRF scientists and physicians will use the funds to develop a better understanding of and treatments for autoimmune diseases. These are conditions in which the immune system becomes unbalanced and proteins or cells that would normally protect from harmful invaders begin attacking the body’s own tissues.

In addition to lupus, autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, multiple sclerosis, chronic inflammatory bowel disease, and dozens of other illnesses. Estimates place the total number of Americans affected by these conditions between 14 and 22 million.

“There’s a profound need for new treatments for autoimmune diseases,” said James, who holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research at OMRF. “By integrating clinical trials and other patient-oriented research, we hope to accelerate the process of delivering new therapies to the patients who need them most.”

The first five-year ACE grant, which was awarded to OMRF in 2009, has already spawned important research advances, said James. “The grant funds and the collaborations were integral for Kathy Sivils, Ph.D., to do the first large-scale genome-wide association study of patients with Sjögren’s syndrome,” an autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s moisture-producing glands. “This led to the discovery of at least six new Sjögren’s-related genes.”

OMRF was also involved in developing and initiating a clinical trial for an investigational new compound to treat Sjögren’s.

Another success was the collaboration of OMRF researcher Darise Farris, Ph.D., with University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center scientists James George, M.D., and Deirdra Terrell, Ph.D. The trio worked on identifying events that trigger a rare autoimmune disease known as TTP, a dangerous blood disease that causes clotting and bleeding simultaneously.

With the grant renewal, Patrick Gaffney, M.D., who holds the J.G. Puterbaugh Chair in Medical Research at OMRF, will lead research into a specific pathway that can cause problems in some lupus patients. This work could lead to new therapies to combat lupus, which affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans.

The consortium members will also band together to look at disease flare, a significant problem in a number of autoimmune illnesses. James said the group will study why some diseases wax and wane, with periods of intense illness followed by stretches of relatively low disease activity.

“We will collaborate with other centers to identify the patients who are going to flare and who have a more stable disease,” she said. “If some patients aren’t at risk for a flare, we can use less medicine, which will be less toxic to their systems and reduce side effects in those individuals.”

The grant, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D., serves two important functions. “This award not only recognizes our scientists’ substantial contributions to the field of autoimmune disease research, but it lays the groundwork for the next generation of breakthroughs.”

Funding for the research is provided by grant No. 2 U19AI082714-06 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.