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Kuhn and Holers | CU School of Medicine

CU Researchers Awarded NIH Grant for New Center to Study Autoimmune Diseases

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Written by School of Medicine on September 21, 2021

Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine have been awarded a $3.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to support establishing a center that specializes in the study of the causes of rheumatoid arthritis, spondyloarthritis, and other autoimmune diseases.

The Center for Mucosal Immunobiology and Rheumatic Disease Pathogenesis, which will be established with the grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), will build on the existing work of CU researchers. The center will be coordinating and building on the work of more than 40 researchers who receive total annual funding of $77 million for their projects.

“The goal is to help trainees, early-career investigators, and established investigators improve their ability to do this kind of research, with the goal of intercepting and preventing disease and identifying new treatments,” said V. Michael Holers, MD, chief of the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Holers will serve as the center’s director.

The NIAMS grant is formally known as a P30, which provides funding for resource-based centers, supporting critical research infrastructure, shared facilities, services, and resources to groups of investigators. The overall goal is accelerating, enriching, and enhancing the effectiveness of ongoing basic, translational, and clinical research, while promoting new research.

“The goal is to help trainees, early-career investigators, and established investigators improve their ability to do this kind of research, with the goal of intercepting and preventing disease and identifying new treatments.” - V. Michael Holers, MD

On the Anschutz Medical Campus, this P30 grant, which is the first such grant received by the Division of Rheumatology, will house cores for administrative services, population and data sciences, and mucosal immunobiology. With this new NIAMS grant, center members will focus on understanding the molecular origins and mechanisms that cause rheumatic and autoimmune diseases.

“We will combine our rich resources of patient samples and well-vetted clinical data on people at risk for developing disease,” said Kristi Kuhn, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine who will serve as associate director of the center.

“One of the things we want to do is develop some newer technologies that will integrate our existing capabilities in microbiome, metabolomics, and immune cell profiling,” Kuhn said. “An example is performing dual transcriptomics, where we can include bacterial transcription with the human transcriptional component to understand those interactions.”

The microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses that interact with one another. These microbes can be helpful and potentially harmful. More intensive studying of the microbiome can offer insight into the immune system and how derangements of these interactions can lead to autoimmune diseases.

The researchers whose bonds will be strengthened by the new center are focused on characterizing the mucosal origins and causal mechanisms that drive the initiation and preclinical phases of rheumatic and autoimmune diseases. Their efforts have shown in populations at risk for future disease that an imbalance in the microbiome and chronic inflammation at mucosal sites can be a precursor to conditions that lead to rheumatoid arthritis and spondyloarthritis.

The new center is designed to facilitate studies of mucosal and systemic immunologic techniques, as well as to develop new approaches, to study these integrated mechanisms in already recruited cohorts of individuals throughout the preclinical and then clinically active phases of disease.

To increase the number of researchers working on relevant projects, the center also will provide pilot grants and feasibility funding for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty to develop preliminary data for pursuing rheumatic disease research and utilize the expertise of the research cores and the cohorts, data and biologic specimens.

During the past five years, the School of Medicine has provided substantial funding for research programs, including the Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative, and the GI and Liver Innate Immune Program, which have invested in the equipment, personnel, and services that provide a foundation for this new center.