NIH Grants $10.2M to Find New Therapies for Autoimmune Diseases, Including Scleroderma

Alice Melão, MSc avatar

by Alice Melão, MSc |

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Michigan Medicine researchers have been awarded approximately $10.2 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Autoimmunity Centers of Excellence to explore potential treatments for autoimmune diseases, including scleroderma.

Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of NIH, the grant will be used to develop three projects that are expected to find new therapies for scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune disorders.

“As a NIH Autoimmunity Center of Excellence site, we have the opportunity at Michigan Medicine to conduct extensive translational research, in a clinical trial setting, on autoimmune diseases which allows us to provide the newest, targeted and personalized therapies to our patients,” Dinesh Khanna, MD, said in a press release. Khanna is professor of rheumatology and director of the Michigan Medicine Scleroderma Program.

Khanna will evaluate the potential use of the approved anti-cancer medicine elotuzumab for treating patients with scleroderma.

Elotuzumab is sold with the brand name Empliciti by Bristol-Myers Squibb for the treatment of adult patients with multiple myeloma (a type of blood cancer). It is an immunotherapy that was developed to specifically target immune cells that have a surface protein called SLAM7.

Although the role of this surface protein in scleroderma’s underlying mechanisms remains unclear, it is believed that it may contribute to the activation of T-cells and production of pro-fibrotic signaling molecules.

Michigan Medicine researchers will conduct a clinical study in patients with scleroderma who have abnormally high blood levels of a group of immune cells called CD4-positive cytotoxic T-cells. Treatment with elotuzumab is expected to reduce the amount of these reactive immune cells, and help manage disease activity of scleroderma.

“The project will be a safety trial, and we hope it can open a new treatment option for patients affected with scleroderma,” Khanna said.

In another awarded project, David Fox, MD, professor of rheumatology and internal medicine at Michigan Medicine, will use a broader approach to explore new molecular targets in a range of autoimmune diseases.

The team will take new discoveries related to rheumatoid arthritis and apply them to treat other conditions such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, scleroderma, and autoimmune eye diseases.

“We’re constantly exploring new treatment options for our patients with autoimmune diseases,” Khanna said. “Grants, such as this one, help us take our work from the lab and translate it into tangible benefits for the patients we see each day in clinic.”

Researchers hope to have results from these projects in the next three to five years.