Expert on Lupus, Arthritis Honored for Research

May 08, 2006

Jennifer Anolik, M.D., Ph.D.

A physician who is pioneering new ways to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis has received one of the nation’s most prestigious lupus research awards.

Jennifer Anolik, M.D., Ph.D., was chosen to give the Dubois Memorial Lectureship by the American College of Rheumatology. The honor each year goes to a scientist in recognition of outstanding research on lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own tissues.

Anolik, assistant professor of medicine in the Immunology and Rheumatology Unit at the University of Rochester Medical Center, sees patients with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis regularly at Strong Memorial Hospital. She is part of a team of rheumatologists who have pioneered the use of the cancer drug rituximab to treat lupus. She and her colleagues have shown in a small study that the drug appears to be very successful in treating some patients; for a few patients, just one injection eased their symptoms for years. She is now taking part in a larger study to look at the issue further and analyze why the medication is so effective for some patients but not others.

Anolik’s expertise lies with immune cells known as B cells, which is the type of cell targeted by rituximab. Current lupus treatments affect nearly all the cells of the body, including healthy cells, causing an array of severe side effects in most patients. One of Anolik’s goals is to understand more about how lupus happens, especially the specific role of B cells, so that new treatments will offer relief to patients without causing side effects.

Her focus on B cells has broad implications for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Patients with arthritis have many more treatment options today than they did just 10 years ago, including drugs that target a molecule known as tumor necrosis factor or TNF. Nevertheless, the new medications don’t work very well for about one-third of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Anolik’s work showing that the drugs also affect the body’s B cells is providing clues about why the drugs are so effective for some people but not others.

Some of the most important clues for both diseases are coming from the tonsils of patients with the diseases. Anolik and colleagues have learned how to take advantage of the accessibility of the tonsils, which are rich in information about the body’s immune system, to learn more about the molecular underpinnings of both diseases. Currently the research is focusing on how cells that will end up attacking the body evade the body’s elaborate quality-control mechanisms. Much of the work is done in collaboration with rheumatologists John Looney, M.D., and Ignacio Sanz, M.D. in the University’s NIH-funded Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, where lupus and rheumatoid arthritis as well as multiple sclerosis are under scrutiny by two dozen researchers.

Anolik has been assistant professor of Medicine, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine since 2003. She received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Swarthmore College and her medical and doctoral degrees from the University of Rochester.

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