This research is the first to clearly identify and illuminate a specific mechanism of action involved in lupus. Funding from the Lupus Research Institute is helping pave the way for additional research, and TARC has begun enrolling patients for a clinical trial designed provide additional insights into this disease.

Barbara Vilen, PhD; and Jennifer Rogers, MD

Researchers at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center (TARC) at UNC have obtained critical new insights into some of the biological mechanisms that cause lupus. And now, funding received from the Lupus Research Institute promises to help them continue advancing basic and clinical research that may help enable the development of new drugs in the future.

Lupus, an often debilitating autoimmune disease, results from the human body mistakenly attacking healthy cells and thereby damaging patients’ tissues and organs. Exactly how this happens is not well understood, but one key aspect of this process is now clearer, thanks to the work of researchers at TARC.

“In all individuals, cells and tissues naturally die off and need to be removed from the body,” says Barbara Vilen, PhD, and Associate Professor of Microbiology & Immunology. “This clearing process is performed by a biological structure within the cell called a lysosome. We have learned that in people with lupus, the activity of the lysosomes may be impaired in very specific ways. As a consequence the person’s body accumulates cellular waste that is not properly removed, causing their immune systems to produce auto-antibodies (proteins that attack the body’s cells), which leads to damage of healthy tissues.” In essence, the body mistakes the remaining cellular waste as foreign invaders and goes on the attack.

Jennifer Rogers, MD, a rheumatologist and assistant professor of medicine, adds that extensive laboratory research performed at TARC is now being validated in human patients, and it is shedding new light on what’s happening with patients who have lupus. The research center has begun enrolling patients for a cross-sectional and longitudinal clinical trial to gain additional insights among people with high and low levels of disease activity.

“What impedes drug development for the effective treatment of lupus is the ability to identify the underlying pathways that lead to improper activation of the immune system,” says Vilen. “Our research has now identified one of the key pathways involved with the body’s inability to degrade and clear cellular debris, which helps us better understand what mechanisms activate the immune system. This is the first research to clearly identify and illuminate this specific mechanism of action.”

While the research being performed at TARC is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to finding ways to combat lupus, it’s a good example of how the research center is combining strong laboratory and clinical expertise to provide the greatest opportunity to find ways to help patients in the future.