Researcher finds promising treatment for lupus

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Assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering Tianfu Wu is working on promising research that could change the way lupus is treated. | Photo by Sonia Zuniga\ The Cougar.

With the help of a $300,000 Lupus Research Institute grant, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering Tianfu Wu is working on promising research that could change the way lupus is treated.

Lupus is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that occurs when a person’s immune system attacks their own tissues and organs. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, Lupus has affected an estimated 1.5 million Americans and it is believed at least five million people worldwide live with a form of lupus.

Approximately 16,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the Lupus Foundation of America website. Almost 90 percent of those diagnosed with the disease are women between the ages of 15 and 44.

As he embarks on this new project, The Cougar sat down with Wu to discuss his research and his goal of finding a potential stepping stone to a lupus cure.

The Cougar: How will this funding be distributed into your research? How long do you expect this research to take?

Wu: The $300,000 LRI-funded research will take the course of three years. I just began my work last Friday, and (am) still deliberating certain details for the preliminary research.

 TC:You stated you have been an in this field for over 10 years. What has been the development of finding a successful treatment for lupus and how has it improved in any way?

Wu: Over the course of 50 years, the FDA has approved only one drug, GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s Benlysta, for the specific treatment of lupus. Major trials, such as the treatment with the experimental drug tabalumab, failed to help patients in its clinical trials, making a potential cure a distant possibility. After scanning cell’s inner proteins, (I) determined that one molecule called polo-like kinase 1, or PLK1, might contribute to the onset of the disease.

TC: What is the significance of this research and in specific researching enzyme PLK1?

Wu: Doctors want to find a drug that is potent but not an immune suppressant, without causing side effects. We’re looking at how the enzyme PLK1 affects the immune system and if blocking its activity can reduce inflammation and other symptoms of lupus.

TC: What are the key points of your research?

Wu: (Our goal is) uncovering a molecular basis for the immune cells that express PLK1 as well as signature pathways used by PLK1 to regulate upstream and downstream molecules. Next, (I) aim to determine whether or not PLK1 is an effective therapeutic target for treatment of lupus in animal models. By blocking this molecule, (I) hope to show that it could improve several manifestations, bettering kidney functions and reduce inflammation, among other symptoms of lupus.

TC: People with active lupus often have high levels of a certain protein in their blood. Benlysta binds to and limits the activity of the protein. When given together with other medicines for lupus, Benlysta decreases lupus disease activity more than other lupus medicines alone, according to the medicine’s website. Benlysta, although an efficient immunosuppressant, can have its side effects. Can you explain why this can potentially be dangerous?

Wu: (Treatment) would be good for the patients, but on the other hand you can’t get infected, because of that same suppression. It would be a danger… they will have lost the ability to defend itself from other diseases…it would have lost its only defense.

TC: How could this be a game-changer into finding a cure against Lupus?

Wu: We often see the phenomenon, but we are still are trying to figure out the mechanism and the molecular basis of how Lupus works. Thus we can get a better understanding of how to find the next step to a possible solution. We believe blocking this enzyme (PLK1) can provide a viable therapeutic target for treating lupus. It’s promising.

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