October 21, 2005

Grant gives boost to lupus research efforts

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Amy Major, Ph.D., is one of only 15 investigators in the nation to receive the Lupus Research Institute Award.
photo by Dana Johnson

Grant gives boost to lupus research efforts

Amy Major, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, has been chosen as one of only 15 scientists nationwide to receive the Lupus Research Institute Award.

The award, which provides $300,000 of grant funding over a three-year period, supports 'high-risk, high-reward' research on causes, prevention and treatment strategies for lupus.

The award will support Major's research on the autoimmune mechanisms of atherosclerosis, a common cause of mortality among lupus patients. Systemic lupus erythematosus (S.L.E.) is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system produces antibodies that attack normal tissues and organs. It can affect almost any organ in the body, including the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, lungs, blood and heart.

Of the estimated 1.5 million Americans with lupus, 90 percent are women. Women with lupus are about 50 times more likely than other women their age to have a heart attack or angina (chest pain), according to the Lupus Research Institute. Also, women affected by lupus often have cardiovascular events (heart attacks, stroke, etc.) before menopause — much earlier than women in the general population.

“The normal risk factors (such as high LDL and low HDL levels) don't always apply to individuals with lupus, as they do in the general population” Major said. “So we don't really know what the mechanisms are for the accelerated atherosclerosis in these patients.”

To address this issue, Major has developed a mouse model to help identify the immune factors involved. These mice are highly susceptible to developing both lupus and atherosclerosis.

“We are now using these mice to understand the mechanisms for the accelerated atherosclerosis, trying to determine which immune cells are important in the disease process,” Major said. “Hopefully, the results of this research will allow us to focus on more specific cell types so that we can better target drugs to treat the atherosclerosis as well as the lupus.”

People with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders also suffer from increased atherosclerosis. Major expects that her findings will reveal risk factors for atherosclerosis that are common to many autoimmune disorders.

“In a time when NIH funding is getting more difficult to obtain, programs like this are very important to help jumpstart innovative and creative — but risky — ideas and allow researchers to get the preliminary data necessary to be funded by the NIH,” she said. “Lupus and atherosclerosis is a new field for me, but it is a direction in which I'll remain focused. Because there's not a lot known, there is a lot that still needs to be done to improve the quality of life for patients with lupus.”

Major earned her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at West Virginia University in Morgantown. In 1998, she came to Vanderbilt to complete her postdoctoral training under the direction of Sergio Fazio, Ph.D., and MacRae Linton, M.D., in the department of Medicine. Major joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2004.

Established in 1999, the Lupus Research Institute (LRI) is a national nonprofit organization that supports the novel research to determine the cause, improve treatment, and, ultimately, to prevent and cure systemic lupus erythematosus.