Up to 50,000 people in the UK are thought to have lupus, a complex, long-term illness that can cause damage to the skin, organs, joints or any other part of the human body. While it can affect anyone, it is more common in those who are of African, Caribbean or Asian origin, and women account for 90 per cent of cases.
Funded by a generous gift in Will from Dr Erina Herrick, the 2022 Emerging Leaders prize awards a total of £220,000 to researchers from the University of Oxford, University of Liverpool, and University College London.
Dr Alex Clarke, Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology was joint 1st place winner and receives £100k.
Alex's research aims to understand the fundamental causes of lupus, with the objective of identifying novel treatment targets. He studies how the metabolism of immune cells differs in autoimmunity, and how this contributes to the development of lupus.
When cells are deficient in energy, nutrients, or are stressed, they activate a recycling system called 'autophagy' to break down large molecules into smaller ones for fuel. Alex's work in lupus has shown that autophagy is activated in B cells, and is required for them to produce antibodies. His research group has now identified two new metabolic vulnerabilities in another B cell type, called germinal centre B cells, which are known to be dysfunctional in lupus. This body of work improves our understanding of lupus and helps to open new therapeutic avenues.
Thanks to the Emerging Leaders Prize, Alex will be able to study the metabolism of plasmacytoid dendritic cells in lupus. These cells are the main producers of a type of interferon that causes many of the symptoms and signs of lupus. If researchers can understand how cell metabolism is altered, they might be able to rebalance it and, as a result, develop new treatment approaches.
Other winners announced were Dr Eve Smith, NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer, University of Liverpool and Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust who also receives £100k as joint winner, and Dr Thomas McDonnell, Medical Research Foundation Fellow, University College London receiving £20k as runner up.
Dr Angela Hind, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Foundation, said: "Lupus is poorly understood, difficult to diagnose and treat, and there is no full cure – all of which leaves a huge unmet need for new research. We're excited to be supporting the next generation of leaders in lupus research, as a tribute to Dr Erina Herrick, a scientist who lived with lupus for most of her life. Sometimes our donors specify areas of research important to them, and this was the case with Erina, who left a gift in her Will to support emerging research leaders in the field of lupus."
The prize-winners received their awards at a ceremony in London on Tuesday 29 November 2022.