If you attended the Lupus Food and Wine Classic in June, you might remember the group of enthusiastic young adults who greeted you as you entered Nickelodeon Universe and escorted you to the registration table. Those students are this year’s Lupus Foundation of Minnesota (LFM)Summer Research Fellows, and we are fortunate to be hosting them in our laboratories at the University of Minnesota while they participate in a lupus research project and learn what full-time research is really like. (Spoiler alert: it’s pretty cool. But I’ll let the fellows tell you that themselves later this summer).
There are two summer fellows in my lab this year, Sivun and Brianna. They have already learned some new lab techniques – measuring the activity of a gene in a blood sample, doing in vitro experiments to activate blood cells in a culture dish and see how they respond, examining DNA for the presence of genetic variations associated with lupus, and cloning a little-known lupus-related gene so that we can study its function. But the most exciting part is the scientific questions that they can try to answer with these approaches. Why do certain people get lupus? Can we come up with better ideas for treatments that might protect patients from the damage associated with autoimmune disease? Once we know that a certain gene is associated with lupus, how can we figure out what to do about it?
Brianna is working on a project that we hope will identify early predictors of lupus. She is studying blood samples from people who have tested positive for antinuclear antibodies (ANA) but do not have a lupus diagnosis. We know that some of these individuals will go on to develop lupus in the future, but we have no way of predicting which ones are at the greatest risk. Brianna is examining patterns of gene expression in blood cells, looking at levels of proteins in the blood, and genotyping DNA samples with the goal of finding a set of markers that will predict which of these individuals is likely to develop lupus. Brianna is also involved in a second project in which she is studying an unusual variation of a protein that we think is involved in the vascular problems experienced by patients with lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
Sivun is studying a gene that is associated with lupus, but scientists know very little about this gene or why it might contribute to autoimmune disease. In order to better understand its function, Sivun is performing a series of experiments that will allow us to turn up the activity of this gene so that we can see how the cells change their behavior. She is also looking at blood cells from people who have the lupus-associated variation in this gene, to find out if they produce more inflammatory factors than patients who do not have that variant.
There’s no doubt our summer fellows will gain important knowledge about lab techniques and day-to-day life as a researcher. But we hope that they will also get a sense for the importance of the unanswered questions that we have about lupus, and that as they move forward through their studies and into their careers, they will be drawn to continue work that will bring us closer to the answers.