Oklahoma City, OK – The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation hosted the first international Lupus genetics conference on September 8-9. Although scientists have been using modern approaches to study the genetics of Lupus for the past ten years, there has never been a formal meeting dedicated to the subject. This meeting was meant to facilitate meetings between researchers, discussions of their work, updates by colleagues on their progress, and collaborations with other scientists around the world.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosis, commonly known as Lupus, is a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissues and organs. Lupus affects approximately one person in 1,000, which means an estimated 3,500 Oklahomans have the disease. Ninety percent of those who develop Lupus are women between the ages of 18-40. Black women have the highest risk of developing the disease, approaching a prevalence of 1 in 250.
Dr. John Harley, Head of the Arthritis and Immunology Program at OMRF and Professor of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma, was the coordinator for the conference. He noted that recent developments, including the completion of the Human Genome Project, advances in mathematics and computer science, and the ability to study mouse models, have furthered scientists’ understanding of Lupus. However, because Lupus is an extremely complex disease, which may involve hundreds of different genes, finding the right “genetic targets’ has been complicated.
“Before the conference we know of six good targets, but after the weekend, we’ve doubled that to 12. In two days, we have, as a community of scientists, greatly expanded the genetic focus, which will facilitate both the research at OMRF and around the world,” said Dr. Harley.
Dr. Harley also noted that the conference marked a turning point in Lupus research. “For the last ten years, we have been looking for the signals that only approximate where the responsible genes are in the human genome. Now, we are turning our attention to the even more complicated task of identifying the genes themselves. When we understand how they malfunction, scientists will be in a position to develop better ideas about how to find a way to fix the problem and develop more effective therapies for Lupus.”
More than 100 researchers, representing most of the programs studying lupus in the United States and internationally, attended the conference. One notable speaker was Mary Claire King, Ph.D., from the University of Washington. Dr. King is best known for identifying BRCA-1, one of the two known genes that increase the susceptibility to breast cancer. Her focus has recently shifted towards studying and decoding the genetics of Lupus.
Other seminar attendees included international researchers such as Grant Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Glasgow, Scotland; Nadine Hildebrandt, University of Cologne, Germany; Marta E. Alarcon-Riquelme, M.D., Rudbeck Laboratories, Sweden; Kimiko Kuroki, M.Sc., Tokyo, Japan; as well as researchers from the NIH, UCLA, USC, the University of Minnesota, Wake Forest University, AMGEN, and the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
OMRF’s Arthritis and Immunology Program is home to researchers who have made great strides in understanding Lupus. Nationally recognized, OMRF is home to Dr. Morris Reichlin, for whom the very helpful series of diagnostic tests for Lupus, collectively known as the “Reichlin Profile”, is named. In 1997, Dr. Judith James and Dr. John Harley discovered a significant association between Lupus and the Epstein-Barr Virus, raising the suspicion that EBV may be a culprit in the development of Lupus.
In addition, OMRF headquarters the National Institutes of Health’s Lupus Multiplex Registry and Repository (LMRR), which collects genetic information on Lupus patients and their families. OMRF investigators do not focus solely on the scientific side of Lupus; these researchers-physicians address the medical aspect of the disease as they continue to treat patients suffering from Lupus at hospitals located at the Oklahoma Health Center.
Because of the research being done at the Oklahoma Health Center and the housing of the LMRR at the OMRF, Oklahoma City was a logical meeting place, said Dr. Harley. While headquartered in Oklahoma City, the LMRR’s data are made available to many researchers studying the genetics of Lupus. “The NIH has made a significant investment to understanding the genetics of Lupus here in Oklahoma,” said Dr. Harley. “It is natural for the scientific community to gather at OMRF.”
Chartered in 1946, OMRF is a private, non-profit biomedical research institution which employs over 400 scientists, physicians, technicians, and administrative and support personnel, including Oklahoma’s only Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. OMRF focuses on several critical areas of research in addition to Lupus: Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, autoimmune diseases, stroke, AIDS, children’s disease and genetic disorders.