Autoimmunity Center of Excellence Recharged with New Funding

May 11, 2009

URMC's renewed center not only features basic bench science projects -- it also provides Rochesterians with unique access to cutting-edge clinical trial therapies.

Earlier this month, the University of Rochester Medical Center again became one of only nine institutions nationwide to receive a new wave of National Institutes of Health dollars designed to pave inroads into unraveling – and treating – autoimmune diseases.

In 2003, a similar endeavor to establish nine “Autoimmunity Centers of Excellence” (or ACEs) – which would supercharge research into conditions like lupus, diabetes (type 1), multiple sclerosis and some types of arthritis – also targeted URMC. Together with Duke University and the University of California, San Francisco, Rochester’s is among only three of the original ACEs to be refunded, receiving at least $5 million over the next five years, and possibly more if supplementary money is awarded for additional trials.

Historically, URMC has been a powerful player in the field of immunology, with researchers knee-deep in deciphering the inner workings of the immune system, and in hot pursuit of new ways to manufacture vaccines. But according to Ignacio Sanz, M.D., chief of the division of Allergy/Immunology & Rheumatology at URMC, and also principal investigator for URMC’s ACE, it’s also possible the broad-reaching nature of the proposed projects was a key factor in the Rochester center’s renewal.

“Our studies will focus on fundamental questions – namely, how immune cells, like B and T cells, are mis-regulated, confusing the body into attacking its own tissues,” Sanz said. “What we learn is likely to illuminate research across the whole spectrum of similar diseases.”

URMC’s renewed center not only features two basic bench science projects – investigating the role of B-cells in lupus, and T-cells in type 1 diabetes – but also provides Rochesterians with unique access to cutting-edge clinical therapies. Since its initial funding in 2003, the ACE has brought the local community the opportunity to participate in several autoimmune studies – some pioneered right in Rochester, others accessible thanks to URMC’s alliance with other ACEs across the country.

This time around, the ACE will also debut a pilot project in rheumatoid arthritis, specifically drilling down into the bone marrow to question its involvement in not only churning out immature B-cells, but possibly also helping them to organize and differentiate.

“Typically we think of the bone marrow as the place where young B-cells are born and bred, before they are deployed to lymphoid tissues, like the spleen and lymph nodes, where they’re prepared to protect the body by fighting bacteria and other foreign invaders,” said Sanz, a professor of both Medicine and Microbiology and Immunology. “But have reason to suspect that maybe the bone marrow does more than simply spawn new cells; perhaps it does some of this higher-level work, also helping the transitional cells to mature.”

Sanz also serves as co-director of the Rochester Center for the Biodefense of Immunocompromised Populations, which is searching for new ways to protect people like rheumatoid arthritis sufferers – who often rely on immune-suppressing drugs – from threats ranging from dangerous pathogens to biologic attacks.

“Having the both an ACE and a Center for the Biodefense of Immunocompromised Populations housed here at the University is really strategic, since findings uncovered in one center will likely inform the other,” Sanz said.

Sanz, while managing the ACE generally, will also spearhead the ACE’s lupus research. Other key investigators involved in the new center include: John Looney, M.D., professor of Medicine and Environmental Medicine, who serves as clinical director for the ACE trials; Deborah Fowell, Ph.D., associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology, who will lead the diabetes research; Tim Mossman, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Immunology and director of the David H. Smith Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology, who will oversee the ACE’s core laboratory; and Jennifer Anolik, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of both Medicine and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Troy Randall, Ph.D., professor of both Medicine and Microbiology and Immunology, who will jointly direct the rheumatoid arthritis pilot project.

Six additional (brand new) ACEs launched in 2009 include Stanford University, Yale University, University of Chicago, Thomas Jefferson University (Philadelphia), Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, and Baylor University (at Dallas).

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