NU Faculty Receive First Grants from SPARC to Advance Autoimmune Disease Research

The Strategic Pharma Academic Research Consortium (SPARC) for Translational Medicine has awarded their first grants to advance autoimmune disease research. Award recipients include Northwestern University faculty members, Lauren Pachman, MD, professor in Pediatrics-Rheumatology, and John Varga, MD, professor in Medicine-Rheumatology and Dermatology. The selected research teams will receive up to $400,000 over two years.

Members of SPARC include four institutions supported by the National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Awards: Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI), which includes Indiana University, Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame, and institutions at Northwestern University, Ohio State University and Washington University in St. Louis. The awards are supported by SPARC's industry partners: Eli Lilly and Co. and Takeda Pharmaceuticals International Inc.

John Varga, MD, Professor in Medicine-Rheumatology and DermatologyThe award required two project-specific personnel from different participating institutions. Dr. Varga collaborated with Washington University in St. Louis faculty members: John Atkinson, MD, professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Biology, and Elisha Roberson, PhD, instructor in Medicine. Their project will focus on advancing basic science and identifying potential future drug targets for scleroderma. Dr. Varga will also be working closely with NU’s Scleroderma Program on this project which includes his collaborators Monique Hinchcliff, MD, and Benjamin Korman, MD, who are both faculty members in Medicine-Rheumatology.

“I’ve always been interested in multidisciplinary, multi-institutional work and this grant provided us the opportunity to collaborate with one another. Without it, we would not be working together,” said Dr. Varga. “We’re combining the clinical expertise and large patient cohort data from Northwestern University with the computational and technology expertise at Washington University.” Dr. Varga’s research team will be using the funding to analyze different kinds of patients’ tissue samples using RNA/NextGen sequencing. They will be looking at different variants to understand molecular signatures that could ultimately identify specific treatments based on the unique individual.

Lauren Pachman, MD, Professor of Pediatrics-RheumatologyDr. Pachman collaborated with Principal Investigator, Anthony French, MD, PhD, associate professor of Pediatrics, Pathology and Immunology and Biomedical Engineering at Washington University, St. Louis. Their work will focus on advancing the basic understanding about the root causes of juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM), a rare disease, but the most common pediatric inflammatory myopathy. “This is a unique opportunity to combine Northwestern University’s large repository of over 550 different cases of JDM and his expertise in natural killer (NK) cells, which we think may be the “smoking gun” in causing tissue damage,” said Dr. Pachman. They are aiming to collect sequential samples from 20 newly diagnosed children and will be using the SPARC funding for this as well as the CyTOF analysis of more than 40 characteristics of each child’s NK cells and their clinical characteristics. Patient samples will be collected with the help of Megan Curran, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics-Rheumatology. Their goal is to find a biomarker that may reflect immune activation earlier and therefore guide more aggressive therapy.

Drs. Varga and Pachman both expressed the interesting parallels between their two projects especially their collaboration with Washington University. They both hope to synergize efforts wherever possible and leverage resources for the biggest impact.

To learn more about the SPARC consortium and read about the other award recipients and their funded projects, please click here.

Posted: March 2, 2015

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