The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has received a $2.1 million grant to study the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome.
The four-year award from the National Institutes of Health will allow OMRF’s Christopher Lessard, Ph.D., to understand the influence of genetic differences on the molecular mechanisms that predispose individuals to develop the disease.
Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system becomes confused and turns against the body’s moisture-producing glands, damaging the ability to produce saliva or tears.
In 2013, Lessard and his colleagues at OMRF were the first to identify six genes associated with Sjögren’s, which affects as many as 4 million people in the U.S., according to the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation. The paper, published in the scientific journal Nature Genetics, revealed that while four of the association signals in autoimmune-related genes overlapped those found in Sjögren’s syndrome, some of the genes looked identical to those found in lupus.
The new grant will allow Lessard to focus on IL12A and CXCR5, two genes that appear to distinguish Sjögren’s syndrome from lupus. He will also conduct additional genetic work to expand the findings from the 2013 paper.
“That paper really laid the foundation for this grant,” said Lessard, an assistant member in OMRF’s Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Research Program.
Lessard said the commonalities between Sjögren’s and lupus, which he referred to as “close cousins,” are easy to identify. However, finding ways to separate the two diseases is considerably more difficult.
“Sjögren’s patients are often misclassified as lupus patients, especially early on when doctors are trying to pinpoint a diagnosis,” said Lessard. “Neither disease has a diagnostic test that clearly says whether you have lupus or Sjögren’s syndrome, and that complicates issues.”
The first step, said Lessard, is to study the genes and pathways that overlap and distinguish the two illnesses. That may give the researchers clues as to why certain genetic differences define Sjögren’s syndrome-specific features, while other genetic differences may more generally contribute to features shared across autoimmune diseases.
“My hope is this project can lead to information that can be used to help differentiate between the two conditions and lead to new therapeutic targets for Sjögren’s syndrome,” he said.
Lessard’s grant, number R01AR065953, is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health.