Exploring New Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases

A new grant will allow Michigan Medicine researchers to explore personalized approaches to treating autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and others.

2:49 PM

Author | Kylie Urban

auto immune image
Skin fibroblasts isolated from a scleroderma patient. The red fluorescence is staining alpha-smooth muscle actin, a myofibroblast marker usually seen in high levels in these patients. These activated cells are the culprit in scleroderma fibrosis.

More than 50 million Americans are affected by an autoimmune disease, with women at an increased risk for developing one.  

"Autoimmune conditions can be debilitating for patients," says Dinesh Khanna, M.D., M.Sc., a professor of rheumatology and the director of the Michigan Medicine Scleroderma Program.

LISTEN UP: Add the new Michigan Medicine News Break to your Alexa-enabled device, or subscribe to our daily audio updates on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

"As a National Institutes of Health Autoimmunity Center of Excellence site, we have the opportunity at Michigan Medicine to conduct extensive translational research, in a clinical trial setting, on autoimmune diseases which allows us to provide the newest, targeted and personalized therapies to our patients."

Khanna and his fellow rheumatology colleagues, J. Michelle Kahlenberg, M.D., Ph.D., and David Fox, M.D., were awarded a grant, up to $10.2 million, by the Autoimmunity Centers of Excellence to explore three new projects for potential treatments of autoimmune diseases.

"I will be leading the project on scleroderma, Dr. Kahlenberg will lead a project on lupus and Dr. Fox will lead a collaborative project where we will study a broad range of other autoimmune diseases," says Khanna, who is a co-principal investigator of the grant with Fox.

New projects

While new treatments for autoimmune conditions may help patients with some of their symptoms, they often lead to impairment of normal immune system functions, leaving many patients more susceptible to infections. The research team will study how molecular targets affect autoimmune inflammation and damage, and how to avoid impairing the immune system's ability to fight infection.

We have the opportunity at Michigan Medicine to conduct extensive translational research, in a clinical trial setting, on autoimmune diseases which allows us to provide the newest, targeted and personalized therapies to our patients.
Dinesh Khanna, M.D., M.Sc.

In the scleroderma project, Khanna will test the drug elotuzumab, already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of the blood cancer multiple myeloma, as a potential treatment for patients with scleroderma.

"The trial design will recruit patients with early scleroderma who have elevated levels of abnormal lymphocytes, CD4+ cytotoxic T cells, in the blood," Khanna says. "The project will be a safety trial, and we hope it can open a new treatment option for patients affected with scleroderma, a disease without FDA approved therapies."

In the lupus project, Kahlenberg, an associate professor of rheumatology, will test the drug, tofacitinib, currently approved to treat rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, in cutaneous lupus.

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Lupus is an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Those affected experience inflammation throughout the body, as well as fatigue.

She has previously studied a signaling protein tied to UV light sensitivity in patients with lupus. This project will build upon that work and provide further proof that blocking the protein's pathway can provide protection from UV light. Kahlenberg will also study the role tofacitinib plays in the protein signaling.

"We're hoping to provide more targeted and less toxic therapies for our lupus patients," she says.

In the final project, Fox will explore new molecular targets in a range of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, scleroderma and autoimmune eye diseases.

"This project will be an opportunity to take new discoveries related to rheumatoid arthritis and apply this progress to the study of many other autoimmune diseases that affect multiple organs and tissues in our patients, with the ultimate goal of safer and more effective treatment," Fox says.

Future results

The researchers are excited for the projects to get underway and hope to have results in the next three to five years.

"We're constantly exploring new treatment options for our patients with autoimmune diseases," Khanna says.

"Grants, such as this one, help us take our work from the lab and translate it into tangible benefits for the patients we see each day in clinic."

This work will be performed under the University of Michigan Clinical Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, grant number AWD012101, funded by the NIH-NIAID.

More Articles About: Lab Report Arthritis Lupus Rheumatology
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

This article is from the Health Lab digital publication.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories stethoscope
Health Lab
Novel anti-NET antibodies in a multinational cohort
A U-M led international team uncovers new autoantibodies in antiphospholipid syndrome patients, shedding light on disease development. Learn more about the research findings and how they may lead to new treatments.
microscope cells glioma
Health Lab
Researchers circumvent radiation resistance in subtype of brain tumors
University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center researchers find ZMYND8 gene plays a critical role in conferring radiation resistance on brain tumors with IDH1 mutation.
tavr stroke blue cardiovascular red inside blue background
Health Lab
Hospitals without highest stroke care designation may miss them after heart procedure
Using stroke as a measure of quality after TAVR could put stroke centers at a disadvantage, the study suggests
cancer cells microscope blue green
Health Lab
Certain gene signaling rewires tumors after immunotherapy
For some patients, immunotherapy furthers tumor progression instead of halting it. What distinguishes those who benefit from those who don’t?
Brain wiring diagram prosthetic hand
Health Lab
Simple neural networks outperform the state-of-the-art for controlling robotic prosthetics
Simple neural networks outperform the state-of-the-art for controlling robotic prosthetics
Health Lab
Massive international study uncovers genes involved in heart disease
Scientists link dozens of new genome sites to coronary artery disease risk and pioneer a powerful method for illuminating the biological roots of common disease.