$10 Million NIH Grant Funds Research on Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases

Mar. 2, 2022

URMC Scientists Will Lead Work on Rheumatoid and Psoriatic Arthritis

The University of Rochester Medical Center was recently funded to join a prestigious network of academic and clinical researchers, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Accelerating Medicines Partnership®: Autoimmune and Immune-Mediated Diseases (AMP AIM) program. The program is a collaborative effort between the NIH, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pharmaceutical companies, and nonprofit organizations to study the cellular and molecular interactions that lead to inflammation and autoimmune diseases. The grant will fund research for five years, and totals $58.5 million across all institutions named to the network.

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

This program is divided into four disease teams: rheumatoid arthritis (RA), lupus, psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis, and Sjogren’s disease, and multiple technical cores. Jennifer Anolik, M.D., Ph.D., professor and interim chief of Allergy/Immunology & Rheumatology, will serve as the principal lead for the RA team, and Christopher Ritchlin, M.D., M.P.H., professor of Allergy/Immunology & Rheumatology, will lead the psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis team. Anolik served as the RA lead and co-chair of the network on an earlier grant—the AMP RA/Lupus program—and is excited to continue and expand her work. In addition to heading up the RA team, Anolik is also co-PI on a technology grant with Harvard, where she will lead the lab work on Sjogren’s at URMC and is co-investigator with New York University on the lupus disease team. It is estimated that these grants will bring over $10 million to URMC over the course of funding.

Christopher Ritchlin
Christopher Ritchlin, M.D., M.P.H.

AMP AIM builds on and broadens the earlier program that URMC was first named to in 2014 with Anolik as PI. Research during those first several years focused on the cause of RA and lupus using state-of-the-art, single-cell analytics, with the goal of developing more targeted treatments. This is a difficult task because autoimmune diseases are not only highly complex, but each individual patient has a “unique genetic make-up, and develops their own immune system over the course of their lives,” according to the NIH announcement. Research from the previous program has been transformative, thanks to the discovery of many commonalities that can be applied to tissue and immune reactions in other diseases, for example, systematic approaches to analyze tissue at the single-cell level and discovery of shared pathogenic cell populations. As a result, the new program has been expanded to include research in psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, and Sjogren’s disease, in addition to RA and lupus.

The goal of the new grant is to marshal in transformative, high-dimensional technology that has been developed in the last decade, such as transcriptomic and genomic approaches, and apply those to patient-focused research. The prior AMP grant allowed researchers to isolate single cells for target tissue such as joint and kidney for the first time for research in a ‘disease deconstruction’ approach, and this next stage of the project will incorporate ‘disease reconstruction’—looking spatially within tissue to determine what cells are next to each other, how they communicate, and how environmental influences affect the cells and/or the disease.

Collaborations with URMC Cores have played a pivotal role in this research because of their expertise and technological developments. Anolik worked closely with John Ashton, Ph.D. director of the UR Genomics Research Center to develop the single cell approaches during the last grant. Spatial transcriptomics, a process that maps gene activity in a tissue sample, is a highly innovative technology that was recently brought to the UR Genomics Research Center and is being further spearheaded by Edward Schwarz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Musculoskeletal Research (CMSR), and Alayna Loiselle, Ph.D., associate professor of Orthopaedics. CMSR has provided critical tissue processing for the AMP and will be an ongoing collaborator as spatial transcriptomics approaches are expected to be a key modality. Brendan Boyce, M.B.Ch.B., professor of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, will continue as a key collaborator for tissue histology.

Dr. Anolik in the lab

“Relationships will help solve problems in all diseases,” said Anolik. “The collaboration of multiple departments within URMC is key, but combining research with the other institutions in the AMP AIM network is critical as well, because of the value of input from different places across the country, even the world, where expertise, environmental factors and patient populations may be different.” The network includes Hospital for Special Surgery, University of Colorado, New York University, Columbia University, University of Michigan, Harvard, University of California San Francisco and San Diego, Northwestern, University of Alabama Birmingham, and even some academic partners at the University of Birmingham, UK, and the University of Queensland in Australia.  

The grant is funded primarily by the NIH and 10 biopharmaceutical companies, and includes support from non-profit organizations: The Arthritis Foundation, the Lupus Foundation of America, the Lupus Research Alliance, the National Psoriasis Foundation, and the Sjogren’s Foundation.