Autoimmune disease

At a glance

Do differences in the ability of men and women to break down cholesterol affect the function of immune cells in young people with lupus?

Lead researcher

Dr Elizabeth Rosser


University College London



Amount awarded


Last updated



Lupus is a complex chronic condition triggered by a variety of factors, including hormonal changes, viral infection and certain strong medication. These triggers all result in an irregular immune response which causes damage to a range of organs.

For unknown reasons, patients that develop lupus during puberty are subject to more severe disease symptoms than those developing lupus later in life. In addition, women are nine times more likely to be affected by the disease than men. This suggests that sex hormones such as oestrogen may play a pivotal role in the onset and severity of lupus.

Crucially for women, treatment options can result in life-altering side effects such as fertility problems and reduced bone health. Investigating how sex hormones influence the immune system differently in men and women could help identify new targets for treatment.

Dr Rosser aims to compare how sex hormones affect the immune system by looking at a specific metabolic pathway that is influenced by these hormones: cholesterol metabolism.

Cholesterol is mainly produced by the liver, but it can be found in food, and it is needed for the body to function normally. When the body breaks cholesterol down, oxysterol is produced. Oxysterol is a potentially important compound in lupus, as it can interact with immune cells and alter immune function.

Dr Rosser will compare how white blood cells interact with oxysterol in healthy men and healthy women. She will also compare oxysterol-white blood cell interaction in men and women with lupus.

Dr Rosser’s project aims to increase our understanding of the disease mechanisms underpinning lupus. By elucidating the effect sex hormones have on the disease, we can begin to understand why the immune system malfunctions in patients with lupus.

In addition, this work hopes to identify potential new treatment options for patients by improving our understanding of cholesterol involvement in lupus. For example, altered cholesterol metabolism is linked to many diseases including heart disease. The ultimate goal of this work is to understand whether drugs used to treat disorders associated with altered cholesterol metabolism, can also be used to treat lupus.

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Autoimmune disease - Lupus

  • Why is there a need to fund new research?

    Lupus is a poorly understood autoimmune disease with limited treatment options.

    Despite several known triggers of lupus, the exact cause of the disease is unknown and there is currently no full cure.

    Living with lupus can be extremely challenging. 65 per cent of lupus sufferers report dealing with pain as the most difficult aspect of managing the disease. Early intervention can improve management of lupus, however the lack of understanding surrounding lupus contributes to delays in diagnosis. Current research estimates it takes over six years to be correctly diagnosed.

    There is a high clinical need to better our understanding of the disease and improve treatment options and outcomes for patients.

    The Foundation is delighted to have committed over £1 million to lupus research and contribute to changing the lives of those with lupus.

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