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Lupus Research Update: 2006 Volume 3

Volume 3, 2006 - Online Edition | In This Issue


Meet the Investigator >
Pilot Grant Program >
Research Results - Using Cholesterol Levels to Screen for Worsening Lupus-Related Kidney Disease >
Research Results - New Genetic Findings Linked to Lupus in Mouse Models >
Research Results - Rituximab for Lupus Shows Promise >
Research Results - New Target for Treatment Identified >
Advocacy Update - Senator Charles Schumer Champions Lupus Research >
Beyond the Research - The ALR Walks Nationwide >
Drug Research and Development News >

Meet the Investigator

Virginia Pascual, MD, never planned to become a pediatric rheumatologist specializing in lupus. She never thought she’d spend hours in the lab teasing out blood markers that could someday be used to diagnose the disease and track its progress. No, Dr. Pascual, a native of Madrid, Spain, initially set out to become a pediatric gastroenterologist.

She came to the United States in 1987 to complete a one-year clinical fellowship in her chosen field. Almost immediately, however, she found herself drawn to the world of basic research, and the fellowship was soon forgotten in the excitement of the laboratory. She spent the next five years studying the genes that encode autoantibodies— like those involved in lupus. Before she knew it, she was hooked on rheumatology.

So, at age 34, she decided to become a pediatric rheumatologist. “I missed very much the clinical contact with patients,” she says in a voice that retains a trace of her native accent. “I knew it would be painful to go through the training and get the board certification, but I thought it would be worth it in the end.”

It’s a decision she’s never regretted.

Today, at 48, Dr. Pascual is an Investigator at the Baylor Institute of Immunology Research and a Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Her research focuses on pediatric lupus, a disease she was attracted to by its very complexity, mysteries and challenges. To aid her in unraveling some of those mysteries, she’s received two grants from the ALR — a $500,000 grant started in March 2004 that was renewed for $1 million in February 2006.

She and her team have been instrumental in discovering some of the underlying mechanisms of the disease, such as identifying the role of interferon alpha in lupus and describing the expansions of plasma cell precursors. Dear colleagues, friends and supporters: You may notice some differences in this issue of the Lupus Research Update. In an effort to bring you more information from the front lines of lupus research, as well as keep you better informed on the activities of the Alliance for Lupus Research (ALR), we have redesigned our quarterly newsletter. We hope you’ll enjoy the new features, like “Meet the Investigator” in which we profile an ALR-supported researcher, and “News Flash!” in which we highlight the latest ALR news. We welcome your feedback. Please send your comments to: info@lupusresearch.org

More recent work has focused on identifying biomarkers that can help monitor disease severity and, perhaps, one day serve as a simple diagnostic test.

“In looking at the blood and microarrays of pediatric lupus patients, we’ve found very relevant signatures,” she explains. Just as an individual’s handwritten signature is unique to that person, these biological ‘signatures,” or altered gene expression patterns, are unique to certain stages of the disease.

Her work represents a major advance in our knowledge and understanding of lupus. That’s because the disease, like many autoimmune diseases, has few objective measurements of severity. Instead, doctors and researchers rely on a conglomeration of clinical tests and patient observations to track flares and complications. That, in turn, makes conducting clinical research on new treatments difficult.

But with the markers Dr. Pascual and her colleagues have discovered, “with just a teaspoon of blood we can tell as much as a whole physical exam by a physician and blood and urine tests” she says. Eventually, she predicts, a simple test will be able to easily assess just how sick patients are —and how well approved and experimental treatments work to reverse the disease.

With her most recent grant, Dr. Pascual and her team are working to identify markers to predict the development of nephritis, or kidney inflammation, a common complication in children and adults with lupus. “By using these markers we may be able to predict which patients are going to develop future inflammation, be able to start treatment earlier and, hopefully, prevent some of the consequences,” she says.

When she’s not in the lab, you can find Dr. Pascual in the clinic, working with the hundreds of children she sees from throughout the Dallas region.

“Lupus is definitely a very challenging and serious disease in children,” she says. Not only are children’s lives affected by the disease itself, but the treatments used to quell flares and maintain remission have many physical and emotional effects. For instance, the weight gain and skin changes common with the chronic use of steroids can lead to significant self-esteem issues for children. “But what worries us as pediatric rheumatologists is that lupus can definitely affect the ability of these kids to develop cognitively,” she says.

Still, she remains very hopeful about advancements occurring in the disease. “There is a lot of hope today,” she says. “The lupus community, including the ALR, is making a lot of progress and we are very hopeful that it is going to allow us to change the face of the disease.”


1.5 million

people in the U.S. have Lupus.

90 million

dollars committed to lupus research by the Alliance for Lupus Research.


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