URMC Joins NIH Network to Help Find New Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus

Sep. 25, 2014

The University of Rochester Medical Center is one of 11 research groups across the country chosen by the National Institutes of Health to join the NIH Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus Network. The new program is a partnership between the NIH, biopharmaceutical companies, advocacy organizations and academic scientists to more rapidly identify promising drug targets and develop much-needed new treatments for patients with these conditions.

“These awards represent the first phase of an unparalleled approach to identify pathways that are critical to disease progression in rheumatoid arthritis and lupus,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. in an announcement from the NIH. “Insights gained from this effort hold the promise of enhancing quality of life for patients and family members impacted by these and other devastating autoimmune diseases.” 

URMC’s research team, led by Jennifer H. Anolik, M.D., Ph.D., will focus on rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that occurs when immune cells mistakenly attack healthy joints. They will collect joint tissue and analyze where and how immune cells communicate with bone cells, a process that they believe is critical in initiating the inflammation and resulting joint destruction characteristic of the disorder. Understanding this cell “crosstalk” may uncover new ways to stop or slow the cascade of events that leads to inflammation.

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

Rochester’s data will be pooled with findings from the other 10 research teams with the goal of generating a comprehensive understanding of how tissue damage occurs in rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus strikes when immune cells go after parts of the body they are meant to protect. Based on this information, Network members will determine the most promising targets for the development of new diagnostic tools and therapies.

“To advance the field in drug development and find better treatments research teams have to work together,” said Anolik, an associate professor of Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology. “As scientists, we tend to think in our own box, to focus on one cell that we believe is important in human disease. But human disease is so much more complicated than that. To go to the next level we need to integrate all sources of data.”

Anolik, who treats rheumatoid arthritis and lupus patients at UR Medicine’s Rheumatology Clinic, says the need for new therapies is great. While there are some effective treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, the majority of patients don’t fully respond to the drugs and joint damage worsens as they are moved from one treatment to the next. The situation is dire for lupus patients; there are very few approved drugs that are variably effective and associated with many side effects.

Christopher T. Ritchlin, M.D., M.P.H., professor and chief of the division of Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology says Anolik’s team was selected for this highly competitive award based on the novelty of their translational research proposal coupled with the close collaboration between Orthopaedics and Rheumatology in a superb research environment.

“We believe the NIH recognized the unique nature of our Center for Musculoskeletal Research, where scientists and clinicians from many disciplines work together to address unmet needs for patients with systemic musculoskeletal and autoimmune disorders,” added Ritchlin.  

Director of the Center for Musculoskeletal Research and Professor of Orthopaedics Edward M. Schwarz, Ph.D. believes that the new program holds incredible promise for patients and will be extremely beneficial for University science in the years to come.

“This type of partnership between the government, industry, academia and patient advocacy groups is the only way to bridge the valley of death in the twenty-first century,” said Schwarz, referring to the gap between discoveries made in the laboratory and human clinical trials. “Biomedical research funding from the NIH is so important because that is the only place where this type of support comes from. Without the NIH none of this would happen.”

The Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus Network is a five-year program; year-one funding totaling $6 million was distributed amongst the 11 participating academic institutions. Funding for the remaining four years will be based on the milestones reached and the research findings the Network decides to pursue.

Funding for the Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus Network is provided by the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the following Network members: AbbVie; Bristol-Myers Squibb; Merck; Pfizer; Sanofi; Takeda; the Arthritis Foundation; the Lupus Foundation of America; the Lupus Research Institute/Alliance for Lupus Research and the Rheumatology Research Foundation.

Other sites conducting research include: Stanford University; University of Colorado, Denver; Brigham and Women’s Hospital; New York University School of Medicine; Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Rockefeller University; Hospital for Special Surgery; New York Genome Center; Feinstein Institute for Medical Research; University of California, San Francisco; University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins University.

Learn more about the NIH Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus Network here.