NIH Awards $3.8 million To Establish Autoimmunity Center of Excellence at URMC

September 29, 2003

The University of Rochester Medical Center has been selected by the National Institutes of Health as one of nine universities and hospitals in the nation that will share $51 million in grants aimed at producing new treatments for autoimmune diseases. 

Approximately $3.8 million will go to URMC to establish a new, NIH-designated Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, where basic scientists will work closely with clinical researchers to develop treatments for three autoimmune diseases: type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus.  The diseases are among more than 80 that are classified as autoimmune diseases – those in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own cells.

Rochester’s Autoimmunity Center of Excellence will be led by Ignacio Sanz, M.D., associate professor of Medicine and of Microbiology and Immunology.  The center’s eight scientists and 15 technicians and graduate students will work in three groups, each studying a different disease but following a similar approach:  Basic scientists in the laboratory will study blood and tissue samples from patients to identify the immune-system cells that mistakenly attack the body’s own cells – such as cells in the pancreas of patients with type 1 diabetes, or cells in the brains of patients with multiple sclerosis.  Once those cells are identified, the researchers will try to find chinks in their armor.  Specifically, they’ll look for proteins within those cells which, if disabled by a drug, would cause the cells to die or to stop attacking the body’s own cells.  

 “As we hunt for those proteins, we’ll be on the lookout for ones that can be targeted by drugs that are already on the market,” says Sanz.  “It’s possible, for example, that a drug developed to treat leukemia works by targeting a protein that’s also found in a lymphocyte that mistakenly attacks the pancreas of diabetics.”  Should such a drug be identified in the lab, the researchers would then conduct clinical trials in volunteers who have diabetes to determine if the drug helps them.  If existing drugs don’t work, the researchers would go back to the lab to create new agents – a process which normally takes several years and tens of millions of dollars.

 “There are thousands of drugs in existence, and previous research has shown which proteins those drugs target,” says Sanz.  “Our first priority is to see if we can find existing drugs – ones that are readily available and have been proven safe – that can be redeployed to treat these autoimmune diseases.”  If the researchers can identify such drugs, clinical trials could begin in two to three years.

The other institutions that have been designated as Autoimmunity Centers of Excellence include: Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Columbia University, Duke University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of California at San Francisco, and the University of Colorado.

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