It was during a study on ovarian cancer when an oncologist and immunologist from the Cancer Therapy & Research Center discovered his study could hold answers to another disease’s mysteries. Tyler Curiel, MD, MPH, the present Daisy M. Skinner Chair in Cancer Immunology Research in the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, discovered that estrogen plays a role in immune system function, particularly in lupus.
Lupus is a chronic, inflammatory disease that results in the body’s own immune system attacking several areas such as the skin, joints, blood cells, lungs, heart, kidneys, and brain. It is often a challenge to arrive at a timely diagnosis as its symptoms tend to resemble those of other conditions.
Dr. Curiel recently received a federal grant worth $1.12 million from the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program of the Department of Defense to advance his study on estrogen’s effects on the immune system, which could potentially lead to a breakthrough in the fight against lupus. At present, Dr. Curiel and his team are calling on lupus patients to donate blood samples to be analyzed in the study.
The team will be operating on the premise that an element in the immune system, while effective in fending off certain diseases, can end up triggering others. This study will be focusing on a molecule called B7-H1, which is associated with the development of ovarian cancer in mice. Dr. Curiel explains that this molecule may be interfering with the immune system’s ability to recognize what it needs to attack.
Dr. Curiel eventually had the idea that this molecule may be an effective inhibitor in autoimmune diseases as it regulates T cells that prevent the body from attacking itself. Estrogen tends to interfere with T cell function, while B7-H1 has been noted to stop this hormone from disrupting the immune system. What Dr. Curiel needed was an example of an autoimmune disease that could help establish the negative effect of estrogen on immune system function, hence the research on lupus.
With these findings, together with the new federal grant, there is new hope in the lupus community that the next generation of lupus therapies will soon make their way into the research and development pipeline.