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Discovery Attracts New Funding for Pediatric Rheumatologist

Adapted from the Fall 2011 issue of Discovery to Recovery

Theresa Lu, MD, PhD, associate scientist in the Autoimmunity and Inflammation Program at HSS, has received second grants from both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Lupus Research Institute (LRI) to support her laboratory research to advance the care of people with autoimmune conditions, including lupus, juvenile arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Lu is one of only about 200 pediatric rheumatologists in the United States and one of only a handful who conduct basic research.

Theresa Lu, MD, PhD
Theresa Lu, MD, PhD, associate scientist in the HSS Autoimmunity and Inflammation Program

Dr. Lu is working to reduce immune cell activation and abnormal antibody generation in people with autoimmune disease by manipulating the blood vessels that feed the lymph node in these patients. In people with healthy immune systems, the immune cells in lymph nodes generate protective antibodies in response to infection. In people with autoimmune disease, immune cells become activated in response to their own body, generating abnormal antibodies directed at the body's own tissues and causing damage to internal organs.

Dr. Lu received her first LRI grant in 2005 and her first NIH grant in 2006. These awards, and additional support from The William T. Morris Foundation, funded her exploration of mechanisms that jump-start and fuel normal and faulty autoimmune responses. She ultimately found that lymph node cells called dendritic cells, which were already  known to stimulate immune cells, also cause the blood vessels to grow during immune responses. This was a new way of thinking of dendritic cells – as cells that control the lymph node environment.

Dr. Lu's new NIH grant supports research to investigate what happens in the stage following immune cell activation, when the blood vessels stop growing and become more stabilized. Dr. Lu and colleagues are examining how this period of blood vessel stabilization supports antibody generation, testing the hypothesis that interfering with blood vessel stabilization will reduce abnormal antibody generation in autoimmune diseases like lupus.

"We're hoping we can interrupt the process of inappropriate autoimmune response by manipulating the environment the autoimmune cells are sitting in. This would be a new approach to treating lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune diseases, and could complement existing approaches that target the immune cells directly but often not effectively. We want to make a difference for our patients," says Dr. Lu. "HSS is very special in fostering great science that will lead to better understanding of – and treatments for – musculoskeletal and autoimmune diseases."

Learn more in HSS's biannual publication, Discovery to Recovery.


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