OMRF has received a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the autoimmune disease lupus. The five-year award comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH.
The grant will support research on the genetic origins of lupus, which affects up to an estimated 2 million Americans and about 15 million people worldwide. According to John Harley, M.D., Ph.D., the principal investigator on the grant, the research will build on previous research projects that identified more than a dozen genes linked to lupus.
“Our first big study was on women of European ancestry only,” said Harley, who heads OMRF’s Arthritis and Immunology Research Program. “This time we’ll be examining those with African, Asian and Hispanic ancestries, as well as looking closely at the different regions of European ancestry.”
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which an unbalanced immune system mistakes its own tissue for foreign invaders, inadvertently harming that which it seeks to protect. Lupus can affect any part of the body, but its most common targets are the skin, joints, blood and kidneys.
In 2008, an international consortium led by Harley and his colleagues at OMRF made a major breakthrough by identifying 13 genes linked to lupus. With this new round of funding, the group will expand its search for the genetic causes of lupus and possible therapeutic targets.
“Eight percent of the variation of DNA between individuals can be attributed to regional ancestries,” said Harley. “By comparing where lupus patients come from, we hope to pinpoint genes that may add to the risk of developing lupus.”
The grant will involve four related projects. The first will search for gene associations in the most important region of the genome for lupus patients with European ancestry. Two others will examine the genomes of, respectively, African-American and Asian lupus patients. The final project will study susceptibility genes in Hispanics, looking for genes of Native American origin.
“What we’re trying to do is identify which genes confer risk and then figure out how they do it,” Harley said. “Once we know that, we’re closer to finding how to stop them and how to help patients.”
In addition to Harley, other OMRF researchers working on the grant will be Patrick Gaffney, M.D., Kathy Moser, Ph.D., Swapan Nath, Ph.D., Marta Alarcon Riquelme, Ph.D., and Ken Kaufman, Ph.D.
In lupus, the immune system loses its ability to differentiate between foreign substances and its own cells and tissues, causing the body to attack itself. Lupus can affect any part of the body—most commonly the skin, joints, blood and kidneys—and can be life-threatening. The disease primarily strikes women and has no known cure. The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that as many as 2 million Americans suffer from lupus.