Upstate Medical University has received a nearly $700,000 state grant to open a research center dedicated to lupus and other autoimmune and inflammation disorders.
Dr. Andras Perl, SUNY distinguished professor and chief of rheumatology at Upstate, will lead the center, which will be called the Lupus, Autoimmunity, Inflammation and Immune Health Center of Excellence (LACE).
Perl said his research on causes of and treatments for lupus had been continuously funded by the National Institute of Health for over 20 years.
“This particular center would help us research medications that have shown promise,” Perl said. “The NIH unfortunately cut our funding for this particular trial, so I had to look for other sources of funding.”
Fortunately, Perl was able to secure a grant from the state’s Empire Clinical Research Investigator Program (ECRIP), which provides funding for individual physician researchers as well as teaching hospitals that are preparing future researchers.
ECRIP granted Upstate a center award totaling $698,888. The grant will be divided into $349,444 annually for two years. Perl said he hopes Upstate will support the center after its initial two-year funding period.
“We have something going on right now, but it’s not formalized. I’ve proposed this now for about 10 years. It’s being negotiated right now,” Perl said. “We have to figure out how to support this in the long run. Funds are limited and [we] compete with other ideas that have been proposed to the administration.”
Perl is planning a trial of N-acetylcysteine (NAC), an amino acid derivative that is used to treat cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as an antidote for acetaminophen overdose and as a dietary supplement.
“It’s widely available in health food stores but it cannot be formally prescribed,” Perl said, adding that this is because store-bought NAC is not of pharmaceutical grade. “When you go to a health food store you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Previous studies of NAC showed that the drug improved lupus patients’ fatigue and decreased the adverse effects of immunosuppressant medications, which can suppress bone marrow’s ability to produce white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets.
LACE would also allow Perl to study the effectiveness of rapamycin as a treatment for lupus. Rapamycin is currently used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs and to treat lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare lung disease.
Perl said while rapamycin shows promise for treating lupus, Pfizer’s patent on rapamycin has run out so the pharmaceutical giant will not pursue research for other uses.
“The company’s not going to support it because there’s nothing for them to gain,” Perl said. “If we have the infrastructure for the center then we can study these.”
While the main focus of LACE will be research, Perl said having the center will improve coordination of health care for lupus patients. Lupus can attack multiple organs and body systems and is most often diagnosed in women of childbearing age, so one patient may need to see not only a rheumatologist, but a nephrologist or OB/GYN.
“The center would be providing interdisciplinary care. As it stands now we have ad hoc coordination,” Perl said. “We try to coordinate care so if somebody drives two hours they can see [multiple] specialists.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.