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Division of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology Pilot Grant Program Supports Novel Autoimmunity Research Across Disciplines

November 22, 2020

Grant funding for radical new ideas or far-out hypotheses–high risk, high reward research–is notoriously difficult to obtain. Without a proven history or preliminary data, funding can be hard to come by. Even with mountains of data or years of successful research and progress, larger grants that could accelerate novel lines of investigation are often out of reach. Small pilot grants to allow early-stage or mid-career investigators to explore exciting ideas and gather preliminary data for more advanced studies have to potential to drive the progress toward new discoveries that could one day reshape or revolutionize medical care.

For immunology researchers at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh pursuing the next generation of research, the Division of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology has developed a new pilot grant program to spur on scientists' creativity and passion to advance our understanding of autoimmunity.

Developed and led by Sarah L. Gaffen, PhD, the Gerald P. Rodnan Endowed Professor in the Division of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology, the Pittsburgh Autoimmunity Center of Excellence in Rheumatology (PACER) was formed to foster and create opportunities for collaboration among a diverse group of researchers studying the fundamental biology of autoimmunity and related inflammatory and fibrotic immunopathology.

"There is a tremendous amount of talent working in the autoimmunity field at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh – across many departments, divisions, and specialties. Our goal with the PACER program is to seek out and provide support for those ideas that can potentially lead to next generation breakthroughs in our basic understanding of autoimmunity, and ultimately how to treat or cure it," says Dr. Gaffen.

Pilot Grant Program

The PACER pilot grant program provides annual awards to researchers working in autoimmunity who are pursuing ideas that may lead to new intellectual property and commercialization and/or that will generate preliminary data that may lead to extramural funding for autoimmune disease research.

The PACER program was launched in 2019 and has completed its first two grant cycle awards. PACER consists of Catalytic Proposals and somewhat larger Innovative Discovery Proposals. Both grant types are intended to eliminate some of the barriers researchers face in taking the first steps that could lead to transformational discoveries. These funds provide support for studies with the potential to generate advances in the fundamental understanding or treatments for autoimmune disease and lead to the genesis of new intellectual property with the potential for commercialization, including novel therapeutics biomarkers of disease.

In addition to Dr. Gaffen, the program’s steering committee includes Division of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology faculty members Mandy McGeachy, PhD; Partha Biswass, BVSc, MVSc, PhD; Robert Lafyatis, MD, and Dana Ascherman, MD, Interim Chief of the Division. Joining them are Larry Kane, MD, from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Immunology, and Amr Sawala, MD, Chief of the Department of Pediatric Rheumatology at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Sarah Gaffen Receives 2020 ICIS Biolegend William E. Paul Award

Dr. Gaffen with ICIS awardIn November, Dr. Gaffen received the 2020 ICIS Biolegend William E. Paul Award from the International Cytokine & Interferon Society (ICIS) in recognition of her seminal achievements in elucidating the mechanisms of the IL-17 cytokine family and its role in oral mucosal immunity.

Dr. Gaffen received the award during the 8th Annual Meeting of the International Cytokine & Interferon Society meeting on November 1.

“This recognition is a true honor, and I would like to thank all my lab members, past and present, who made it possible,” says Dr. Gaffen. 

Vijay Kuchroo, DVM, PhD, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University was a co-recipient of the 2020 prize.

Dr. Gaffen donated her prize award to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank in honor of her lab members to further its mission and help it meet its increased need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More About Dr. Gaffen

Sarah L. Gaffen, PhD, is the Gerald P. Rodnan Endowed Chair and Professor in the Division of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology.

The Gaffen laboratory primarily studies the IL-17 cytokine, which links innate and adaptive immunity through the regulation of neutrophils and innate antimicrobial proteins. IL-17 and its receptor are unique in structure and sequence from other known cytokine families, and Dr. Gaffen’s laboratory was among the first to study signaling mechanisms mediated by this novel protein, and was the first to demonstrate that IL-17 is critical for immunity to mucosal fungal infection with the commensal fungus, Candida albicans, the causative agent of oral and vaginal thrush and also of systemic candidiasis, a severe hospital-acquired infection with > 50% mortality.

Dr. Gaffen’s continuing work is focused on defining the biological function of IL-17 and its receptor in the context of the oral mucosa, and the mechanisms by which dysregulation of IL-17 drives the pathogenesis of autoimmunity. Her lab aims to understand the physiological impact of cytokine blockade in humans, particularly with respect to the IL-17 signaling pathway. 

Among her many career achievements to date are a National Institutes of Health MERIT award in 2017 and the aforementioned 2020 ICIS Biolegend William E. Paul Award. Dr. Gaffen also currently serves as Deputy Editor of the Journal of Immunology.

Further Reading–Recent Select Publications

Gaffen SL, Jain R, Garg AV, Cua D. IL-23-IL-17 Immune Axis: Discovery, Mechanistic Understanding and Clinical Therapy. Nat Rev Immunol. 2014; 14: 585.

Monin L, Gudjonsson JE, Childs EE, Amtya N, Xing, X, Veram AV, Coleman BM, Killeen M, Mathers A, Ward NL, Gaffen SL. MCPIP1/Regnase-1 Restricts IL-17A- and IL-17C-dependent Skin Inflammation. J Immunol. 2017; 198: 767.

Verma AH, Richardson JP, Moyes DL, Ho J, Huppler AR, Ramani K, Coleman BM, Kane LP, Biswas PS, Hube B, Naglik JR, Gafen SL. Oral Epithelial Cells Orchestrate Innate Type 17 Responses to Candida albicans Through the Virulence Factor Candidalysin. Sci Immunol. 2017; 2: eaam8834.

Amatya, N., Garg, A.V., Gaffen, S.L. IL-17 Signaling: The Yin and the Yang. Trends Immunol. 2017; 38(5): 310-322.

Majumder S, Amatya N, Revu S, Jawale CV, Wu D, Rittenhouse N, Menk A, Kupul S, Du F, Raphael I, Battacharjee A, Siebenlist U, Hand TW, Delgoffe G, Poholek AC, Gaffen SL, Biswas PS, McGeachy MJ. IL-17 Metabolically Reprograms Fibroblastic Reticular Cells for Proliferation and Survival. Nat Immunol. 2019; 20: 534.

McGeachy MJ, Cua D, Gaffen SL. IL-17: The IL-17 Family Of Cytokines in Health and Disease. Immunity, Invited Review for 25th Anniversary Collection. Immunity. 2019; 50: 892.

Li X, Bechara R, Zhao, J, McGeachy MJ, Gaffen SL. IL-17 Receptor Based Signaling and Implications for Diseases. Nat Immunol. 2019; 20: 1594.

Shen F, Verma AH, Volk A, Jones B, Coleman BM, Loza M, Malaviya R, Elloso M, Gaffen SL*, Ort T*. Combined Blockade of Tnfα and IL-17A Alleviates Progression of Collagen-Induced Arthritis Without Causing Serious Infections in Mice. J Immunol. 2019; 202: 2017-2026.

Gaffen SL, Moutsopoulos NM. Regulation of Host-Microbe Interactions at Oral Mucosal Barriers by Type 17 Immunity. Sci Immunol. 2020; 5: eaau4594.

Aggor FEY, Break TJ, Trevejo-Nunez G, Whibley N, Bailey R, Kaplan DH, Naglik JR, Shan W, Shettey AC, McCracken C, Durum SK, Biswas PS, Bruno VM, Kolls JK, Lionakis MS, Gaffen SL. Oral epithelial IL-22/STAT3 Signaling Licenses IL-17-mediated Immunity to Oral Mucosal Candidiasis. Science Immunology. 2020; 5: eaba0570. Ep