Emerging Leaders Prize recognises future leaders in lupus research
Three exceptional lupus researchers have been announced today as winners of the Medical Research Foundation’s sixth Emerging Leaders Prize.
Funded by a generous gift in Will from Dr Erina Herrick, the 2022 prize awards a total of £220,000 to researchers from the University of Liverpool, University of Oxford, and University College London.
Up to 50,000 people in the UK are thought to have lupus, a complex, long-term illness that can cause damage to the skin, organs, joints or any other part of the human body.
Lupus can affect anyone, but it is more common in those who are of African, Caribbean or Asian origin, and women account for 90 per cent of cases.
The disease has been linked to a range of potential ‘triggers’, including hormonal changes, sunlight, viral infection, childbirth and strong medications. These triggers result in an irregular immune response, where the body’s own immune system attacks its healthy cells, resulting in inflammation. In mild cases this can cause rashes and joint problems, but in more severe cases, this inflammation affects major organs, resulting in kidney failure, heart disease and neurological damage.
Lupus is inherently difficult to diagnose and treat, due to the broad spectrum of symptoms associated with the disease, which are common to many other diseases and conditions. There is currently no cure, but symptoms can improve if treatment starts early.
We want to make a difference to people living with lupus, by supporting research leaders of the future. Lupus is one of our longest-standing research priorities, with £1.5 million invested in new research over the last five years, including three awards as part of our first Emerging Leaders Prize in 2017, and four research fellowships, awarded in 2019.
Our 2022 Emerging Leaders Prize-winners are all making a significant impact in lupus research. By investigating the fundamental causes of lupus, their studies could lead to much-needed new approaches to diagnosis and treatment. In turn, these advances could dramatically improve the lives of adults and children living with lupus.
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people in the UK are thought to have lupus.
Dr Eve Smith’s research focuses on lupus in children, which is more severe than adult-onset lupus. It has greater disease activity, frequent, early occurrence of permanent organ damage, and higher death rates. Despite advances in care, there is an urgent need for a structured, evidence-informed approach to patient management, to improve outcomes in young children with lupus.
Dr Smith is leading the international ‘TARGET LUPUS’ research programme, directly responding to this unmet need. TARGET LUPUS aims to develop, implement, and test a novel ‘treat-to-target’ based approach to care, promoting early aggressive disease control to prevent organ damage, minimise adverse effects from drugs, and improve survival.
Dr Smith leads an international taskforce of global experts in childhood-onset lupus. Together they have developed recommendations and ‘paediatric specific’ target definitions underpinning the ‘treat-to-target’ approach to childhood-onset lupus.
Dr Smith’s long-term aim is to develop clinical trials in this and other rare paediatric diseases, with parallel laboratory research programmes.
Funding from the Foundation will hugely accelerate the development of these clinical trials, which are aimed at improving patient care. The prize funding will support a biostatistician undertaking analyses informing the programme, and facilitate taskforce meetings to agree fundamental aspects of TARGET LUPUS.
Dr Alex Clarke’s research aims to understand the fundamental causes of lupus, with the objective of identifying novel treatment targets. He studies how the metabolism of immune cells differs in autoimmunity, and how this contributes to the development of lupus.
When cells are deficient in energy, nutrients, or are stressed, they activate a recycling system called ‘autophagy’ to break down large molecules into smaller ones for fuel. Dr Clarke’s work in lupus has shown that autophagy is activated in B cells, and is required for them to produce antibodies. His research group has now identified two new metabolic vulnerabilities in another B cell type, called germinal centre B cells, which are known to be dysfunctional in lupus. This body of work improves our understanding of lupus and helps to open new therapeutic avenues.
Thanks to the Emerging Leaders Prize, Dr Clarke will be able to study the metabolism of plasmacytoid dendritic cells in lupus. These cells are the main producers of a type of interferon that causes many of the symptoms and signs of lupus. If researchers can understand how cell metabolism is altered, they might be able to rebalance it and, as a result, develop new treatment approaches.
Dr Thomas McDonnell’s research focuses on the antiphospholipid syndrome; a condition which overlaps significantly with lupus, both in patients and underlying mechanisms.
His work has ranged from developing a potential new treatment, to studying Beta-2-Glycoprotein I (B2GPI), which represents the main autoantigen in antiphospholipid syndrome. To do this, Dr McDonnell has focused on developing a unique, multidisciplinary approach to translational research, incorporating techniques from multiple fields and bringing them to bear for the benefit of patients.
This funding will allow Dr McDonnell to attend a leadership course and train other scientists working on lupus and associated conditions, helping to support the longer-term impact of his research. The funding will also be spent on introducing automation into Dr McDonnell’s lab, which will significantly extend the scope of his research.
of people living with lupus are women.
Lupus is poorly understood, difficult to diagnose and treat, and there is no full cure – all of which leaves a huge unmet need for new research.Dr Angela Hind
Dr Angela Hind, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Foundation, said: “Lupus is poorly understood, difficult to diagnose and treat, and there is no full cure – all of which leaves a huge unmet need for new research. We’re excited to be supporting the next generation of leaders in lupus research, as a tribute to Dr Erina Herrick, a scientist who lived with lupus for most of her life. Sometimes our donors specify areas of research important to them, and this was the case with Erina, who left a gift in her Will to support emerging research leaders in the field of lupus.”
The prize-winners received their awards at a ceremony in London on Tuesday 29 November 2022. The event was sponsored by Pfizer Limited.
This is the sixth year of our Emerging Leaders Prize. In previous years, we have recognised researchers working in lupus, adolescent mental health, antimicrobial resistance, pain, and COVID-19. In 2023, the Prize will be open to researchers working in viral and autoimmune hepatitis.