A step closer to understanding and treating lupus

Monash University researcher Dr Joshua Ooi, alongside co-investigators Professor Eric Morand and Professor Jamie Rossjohn will be one step closer to developing a potential therapy for lupus, thanks to a highly competitive $400,000 Novel Research Grant awarded by the Lupus Research Alliance.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), known as lupus, is an autoimmune disease that affects multiple organs including the skin, kidneys, heart, lungs and brain.

A relatively common disease, lupus affects approximately 1 in every 1000 people, mostly women of child-bearing age. Patients require lifelong treatment, which suppresses their entire immune system and has significant side effects including the risk of life-threatening infections and osteoporosis.

Dr Ooi, an Al & Val Rosenstrauss Research Fellow and group leader in the School of Clinical Sciences at Monash Health was recently awarded the grant for his project: ‘Genetically engineering regulatory T cells to treat SLE’.

Autoimmune disease: The immune system gone wrong

“The immune system protects the body from pathogens like bacteria and viruses, however, sometimes the immune system mistakes self-proteins as foreign and tries to eradicate that self-protein,” said Dr Ooi.

“This is called autoreactivity and leads to autoimmune disease.”

T cells: Orchestrators of the immune system

T cells are a type of white blood cell that play a central role in the immune system by attacking virus-infected cells, foreign cells and cancer cells.

“Unfortunately, the abnormal immune response in lupus patients is driven, in part, by misguided T cells that provide excessive help to autoantibody producing B cells,” said Dr Ooi.

“The result is an ‘immune complex’, a large network of molecules that end up being deposited into blood vessels within the skin, kidneys and brain; and initiate an inflammatory response that ultimately leads to the destruction of that particular organ.”

Genetic engineering: Making the bad T cells good

Dr Ooi’s research is investigating effective ways of neutralising these ‘badly behaved’ T cells by making them anti-inflammatory.

“This will involve determining the genetic sequence of the disease causing T cells, then using the sequence to engineer anti-inflammatory T cells,” Dr Ooi said.

“We are hopeful this could lead to a new specific therapeutic for lupus.”

In further success, Dr Ooi recently also received the prestigious Mosaic Autoimmunity Award by the International Congress of Autoimmunity for his work on T cells in autoimmune diseases.  The international award of US$10,000 is open to all researchers in the autoimmunity field under 40 years old.