Discovery: A Key Mechanism in the Cause and Development of Autoimmunity

New York Investigators Publish Findings in Top Scientific Journal, <em>Immunity</em>

Investigators at Columbia University Medical Center, supported by the Lupus Research Institute, the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and others, have made a fundamental discovery as to why the body’s immune system sometimes turns on its own cells and tissues.

Publishing in the December 19th issue of Immunity, their findings highlight the critical role of a specific protein—IBP—in preventing a sequence of reactions that leads to inflammation and autoimmunity.

“These studies will provide crucial insights into the mechanisms required for the proper control of immune responses,” said study co-author Alessandra Pernis, M.D., “as well as potentially guide the development of innovative strategies to target systemic autoimmune diseases like lupus.”

The Discovery

The researchers show just how critical IBP is in controlling the normal sequence of events in the immune system—and how lupus and other autoimmune processes can spontaneously develop when IBP is absent.

For example, the researchers show that without IBP in its role as something of a “control cop” in molecular pathways of the immune system, white blood “T” cells charged with responding to infected or malignant cells start pumping out damaging inflammatory substances (interleukin-17 and 21).

By uncovering IBP’s importance in keeping things in order in the immune system in this and other ways, the researchers can now focus on finding ways to manipulate or reintroduce it.

The Scientists Driving Discovery

Dr. Pernis’ laboratory at Columbia was one of the first to identify IBP, and in 2006, she won an LRI Novel Research Grant to investigate the mechanisms by which the female sex steroid, estrogen, controls IBP’s actions.

“The funding provided by the LRI was instrumental in supporting my studies,” she said.

Dr. Pernis is one of 85 researchers who have won a 3-year, $300,000 Novel Research grants from the LRI since it was founded by families with lupus in 2000. The LRI is the only organization to solely fund bold, novel investigations in lupus.

Another study author, Qinzhon Chen, PhD, had a Basic Science Fellowship Grant from the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation to work with Dr. Pernis, who is her mentor, to address a central question in lupus—why T cells of the immune system fail to be controlled and regulated as they should.

The Foundation, in addition to providing lupus patient services and education, funds lupus research grants and fellowship awards for new investigators such as Dr. Chen around New York region and in southern California. It also partners with the Lupus Research Institute in supporting innovative novel research nationwide.