A UC Berkeley professor who aims to change the lives of people who have lupus has been awarded part of a $1 million grant, officials announced Wednesday.
Greg Barton, an associate professor at the campus department of molecular and cell biology, and Ann Marshak-Rothstein, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, were awarded the grant from the nonprofit Lupus Research Institute. The award will go toward researching the role a family of proteins called toll-like receptors plays in the progression of the disease.
“(The winners) chosen have demonstrated a tremendous level of expertise and availability,” said Margy Meislin, director of communications at the institute. “We have every confidence that they will conduct their study with excellence.”
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that triggers the immune system to attack the body’s healthy cells and tissues and that affects more than 1.5 million people in the country, according to the institute.
Barton said this mechanism to attack healthy cells is the defining characteristic of the disease and that he plans to use the grant to discover why the toll-like receptors cause a problem in people with lupus but not in healthy people.
“With lupus, the genes that normally recognize bacteria mistakenly respond to our own RNA and DNA,” said Barton. “We don’t understand how those receptors make that decision, how they know whether the nucleic acids are from our own selves or from a virus.”
He said his lab wants to find out if the error in the lupus immune system that attacks its own DNA lies with proteins inside immune cells, which control receptor activity. Ultimately, the group aims to determine why these receptors react positively for healthy people and negatively for lupus patients.
Meislin said that this research can also have broad implications for developing a vaccine for infectious diseases, cancer and autoimmune diseases other than lupus.
Marshak-Rothstein said she plans on developing experimental approaches in mice to pinpoint which receptors are responsible for causing lupus in humans. Like Barton’s research, this approach could discover a cure for lupus by identifying the receptor targets of therapies that could prevent or halt the disease.
“We are looking perhaps at similar questions but a different angle, and observations from one investigator always build on other investigators,” said Marshak-Rothstein.
Previous animal studies by her research group found that one specific toll-like receptor, TLR7, is harmful, while another, TLR9, protects against Lupus.
The award will be paid in installments over four years, according to Meislin.
“We are extremely excited because these two studies have enormous potential for finding a way to prevent and cure lupus,” she said.
Contact Alyssa Neumann at [email protected].
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