01 February 2021

Can changes in the gut microbiota explain why eczema triggers the development of food allergy and asthma? Why does treatment with steroids worsen some skin diseases such as rosacea? How can we understand the roles of certain enzymes in psoriasis?

These are some of the main questions in five projects awarded by the LEO Foundation under the Foundation’s open competition program which supports excellent dermatology research projects worldwide. 

The five projects receive a total of DKK 15 million. The grantees come from research institutions in three different countries – USA, Canada and Denmark.

The LEO Foundation research grants can be applied for by talented researchers at any level of seniority from any country. The Foundation received a total of 45 applications in open competition for the summer 2020 call.

Ida Brams, Chief Grant Officer at the LEO Foundation, says:

“At any point in time, one in every four persons will suffer from a skin disease, which is often visible and stigmatizing – and in some cases completely debilitating. More than 3,000 skin diseases are known today, but many of the mechanisms driving these diseases are still unsolved scientific mysteries. Much more research is required to improve the understanding and treatment of the skin and its diseases. That is what the LEO Foundation aims to do with its philanthropic activities. Our ambition to pave the way for curing skin diseases depends on our strong will to continuously and increasingly support top skin research at the frontiers of our knowledge.”

Research projects selected for funding

David Granville, Professor, University of British Columbia, Canada
A novel therapeutic target in cutaneous leishmaniasis
DKK 2,023,506

Cutaneous leishmaniasis (CL) is a designated ‘WHO top-neglected tropical disease’, with up to 1 million new cases worldwide annually. CL is an inflammatory skin disease caused by infection with Leishmania parasites that leads to tissue damage, ulcers, and severe scarring, despite current treatment options.
The goal of this project is to provide a key rationale for pursuing Granzyme B (GzmB) as a novel therapeutic target for the treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis.
GzmB is a protein that is aberrantly elevated in CL lesions and other inflammatory skin conditions. GzmB activity has been demonstrated to cleave important proteins in the skin, thereby worsening tissue damage, delaying wound healing, and causing scarring in inflammatory patient skin specimens and in experimental models. Importantly, inhibition of GzmB has shown efficacy in delaying these disease phenotypes.

Using lesional specimens from CL patients, a well-established experimental model, and a GzmB inhibitor, the contributions of GzmB to inflammation, impaired wound healing, and scarring in CL will be delineated in this study.

Bryan Sun, Assistant Professor, University of California – San Diego, USA
Genetic and Epigenetic Mechanisms of Steroid-Related Skin Inflammation
DKK 2,995,615

Steroids are a powerful class of medications that are widely used to treat inflammatory diseases. In most cases, steroids block an overactive immune response. However, in skin diseases such as rosacea and perioral dermatitis, the chronic use of steroids can lead to worsened inflammation. While these worsened cases are common, it is not understood why steroids worsen disease and make them even more difficult to treat.

Bryan Sun and his research group recently discovered that an important cytokine which is elevated in rosacea, known as CCL20, is paradoxically activated in the skin by steroids. CCL20 increases inflammation by recruiting lymphocytes and dendritic cells. They found that steroid molecules directly bind and activate the CCL20 gene, overcoming the usual suppressive effects of steroids on inflammation. Based on this finding, they hypothesize that in some skin conditions, steroids directly activate the expression of genes that cause inflammation.

The goal of this project is to systematically identify genetic and epigenetic steroid targets in skin cells. If successful, the results would allow identification of new therapeutic targets for rosacea and perioral dermatitis, and lead to valuable insight into other steroid-resistant inflammatory diseases.

Jeppe Madura Larsen, Senior Researcher, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark
Systemic effects of atopic dermatitis: Dysregulated immune responses to the intestinal microbiota
DKK 4,349,062

Atopic Dermatitis (AD) is a common inflammatory skin disease affecting 15% of children and 3-5% of adults. AD is associated with the risk for developing co-morbidities such as other atopic diseases (food allergy, asthma, and rhinitis) and infections. Co-morbidities are believed to occur because of functional changes in the immune system of AD patients, however, it remains unknown how these changes are established. Emerging experimental studies suggest the existence of a skin-gut immune axis, but the role for the gut remains largely unexplored in AD. 

The goal of this project is to determine if AD changes the bacterial microbiota composition and function in the gut, alters the intestinal and systemic immune system, and increases the risk for food allergy co-morbidity via oral sensitization. The project hypothesizes that AD drives dysregulated immune responses to the gut microbiota, which in turn changes the immune system giving rise to atopic co-morbidities and risk for infections. In other words, it is envisaged that AD patients become “allergic” to the bacteria present in their intestine – leading to a “persistent allergic reaction” due to continuous presence of bacteria in the intestine. 

The project will use a rat model of AD to investigate the hypothesis and perform a human case-control study to support the clinical relevance of the findings. Identification of bacterial drivers of persistent type-2 inflammation could open new avenues for the prevention and treatment of AD and related co-morbidities. 

Hanne Ingmer, Professor, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Probiotics targeting Staphylococcus aureus toxin production in atopic dermatitis
DKK 2,681,665

Patients with atopic dermatitis (AD) are often colonized by the bacterial pathogen, Staphylococcus aureus (S. Aureus). S. aureus produces a large variety of toxins that contribute to the severity of AD and expression of these toxins is controlled by a cell-cell communication process called “quorum sensing”.

Professor Ingmer and her team has previously demonstrated that some bacteria produce signaling molecules, which in S. aureus abolish toxin production through repression of quorum sensing and preliminary analyses indicate that probiotic bacteria also belong to this group.

Thus, the goal of this project is to deliver results addressing the efficacy of probiotics. The project proposes that probiotic bacteria can reduce S. aureus toxin production and that some of the reported benefits of probiotics in AD may be associated with such activity.

Professor Ingmer will address this hypothesis in collaboration with Statens Serum Institut, the LEO Foundation Skin Immunology Research Center, UCPH and Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology, UCPH.

Vasileios Bekiaris, Associate Professor, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark
Understanding the importance of cIAPs as NF-κB molecular switches in psoriasis
DKK 2,815,499

Psoriasis is an inflammatory disease characterized by overproduction of tissue-damaging cytokines by immune cells and keratinocytes. Central cytokines in psoriasis are TNF (tumor necrosis factor) and IL-17 (interleukin 17), which are currently approved therapeutic drug targets. To improve current therapies targeted towards TNF and IL-17, it is important to better understand the biology of the two cytokines in relation to psoriasis.

The goal of this project is to confirm that two enzymes known as cIAPs (cellular inhibitors of apoptosis proteins) play a central role in psoriasis. The two cIAPs are believed to modulate the response of the immune system and of keratinocytes to TNF in order to fine-tune IL-17 production. The project will investigate whether lack of the two cIAPs or their pharmacologic inhibition makes the immune response less pathogenic and reduces the pro-inflammatory nature of keratinocytes during psoriasis

The LEO Foundation’s Research grants in brief

  • Awarded in open competition to support the best dermatology research projects worldwide. 
  • The competition is open to talented researchers at any level of seniority from any country.
  • The typical grant amount applied for is DKK 2-4 million for a period of 1-3 years.
  • The LEO Foundation has appointed an independent international Scientific Evaluation Committee (SEC) for evaluation of applications.
  • Since the first grant was made to support skin research in 2011, almost DKK 350 million has been granted for a total of 129 research projects applied for in open competition.

Next application round

Researchers who would like to apply for a LEO Foundation research grant can apply here.

Next application deadline is 5 March 2021. Submission period will open 5 February 2021.