One UNMC researcher's battle against lupus gets help from $1.5 million NIH grant

One UNMC researcher's battle against lupus gets help from $1.5 million NIH grant

Lupus – the great imitator – is one of the hardest chronic illnesses to diagnose.

That’s because its symptoms mimic so many other diseases from fibromyalgia to diabetes.

This debilitating autoimmune disease affects five million people worldwide and 1.5 million in the United States. More women suffer from it than men and African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are three times more likely to develop it than others. And if that weren’t enough, it can lead to fatal organ damage.

“It’s a difficult, but fascinating disease,” said Kaihong Su, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Dr. Su is the principal investigator on a $1.5 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how the disease progresses and identify biomarkers that signal when organ damage is occurring.

The five-year grant is a collaborative effort between 11 clinicians and researchers at UNMC and more than 50 patients who are taking part in the study.

Lupus turns the body’s greatest defense, the human immune system, against itself causing all sorts of painful symptoms, Dr. Su said.

Since lupus is incurable, symptom management becomes the top priority. In time though, the disease progresses and the immune system begins to attack internal organs, the heart, kidneys and brain are all potential targets. Predicting when the disease progresses to this point is the number one priority of Dr. Su’s research.

“Our goal is to pinpoint biomarkers that indicate when the organs are at risk early enough so treatment can be refined to decrease the patient’s chances of developing fatal organ damage,” she said.

“It’s a timely study,” said Michelene Hearth-Holmes, M.D., an assistant professor of rheumatology in the department of internal medicine at UNMC. “Everyone is looking for ways to predict the progression of the disease and how people will react to treatment.

“We want to provide better diagnosis, therapy and outcomes for patients.”

While lupus has become more manageable over the years, progress in fighting the disease has been slow, she said. In fact, the first new drug in 50 years to treat lupus was approved by the FDA just this year.

For more information contact Deb Meyer in the UNMC Research Subject Advocate office at 402.559.6941.

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu.



Lisa Spellman
UNMC Public Relations
(402) 559-4353