UTICA, N.Y. — Masonic Medical Research Institute (MMRI) of Utica will use a federal grant of $750,000 in its work to “identify more specific and targeted therapies” for systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus).
The funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is a lupus impact award, MMRI said in a news release. MMRI describes itself as focusing on scientific research that “improves the health and quality of life for all.”
Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) is a common and devastating autoimmune disease with a prevalence of about 20 to 150 per 100,000 people. It primarily affects minorities and women of child-bearing age, causing fatigue, joint pain, rash, and fever. Lupus has no cure and current treatments only work to improve symptoms.
However, these treatments often have “secondary, even devastating,” side effects, resulting in the “significant need and urgency” to identify targeted therapies.
Maria Kontaridis, executive director at MMRI, and Gordon Moe, professor at MMRI, will use the funding to work toward that goal.
Kontaridis’ project is entitled “Elucidating the Functional Mechanisms by Which the Protein Tyrosine Phosphatase SHP2 is Involved in the Pathogenesis of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.”
The project was one of only 10 new “promising” scientific studies funded nationwide by the research program within the DOD, aimed at generating “innovative and impactful” lupus research. First established in 2017, lupus advocates, along with the Lupus Research Alliance, worked to create this research program.
In addition to the MMRI, Kontaridis’ project also includes a collaboration with Dr. Vasileios Kyttaris from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of Boston and Harvard Medical School, who will provide MMRI with samples from lupus patients.
“Lupus results in an immunoreactive response where your own immune system recognizes your own cells as foreign and attacks them. Normally, it does this only when it detects something that does not belong to your own body,” Samantha Le Sommer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kontaridis laboratory at MMRI, said. “I am very excited our lab has received this funding, as I am eager to begin working on understanding the causal mechanisms leading to the onset of lupus.”
The “precise mechanisms do remain elusive,” but scientists have hypothesized lupus occurs as consequence of abnormal genetics (gene mutations), as well as by exposure to specific environmental factors (i.e., virus infections or x-ray exposure).
“A person will have the genetic predisposition, which may or may not ever transpire, but the environmental component becomes the secondary hit, triggering the onset of the disease. Now, we can begin to truly get to the root of the cause and understand not only what genes are involved, but how they function to disrupt the normal regulatory processes of the immune system,” Kontaridis said. “Ultimately, the goal of our work is to figure out ways to improve the quality of lives.”