Deciphering the pathogenic immune infiltrate in atopic dermatitis subtypes

Grantee: Patrick Brunner, Associate Professor, Medical University of Vienna

Amount: DKK 3,447,335

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2021

Geography: Austria

The aim of this project is to address the challenge that current treatments for atopic dermatitis (AD) only work as long as they are given.  

A subgroup of the so-called tissue-resident memory (Trm) T-cells appears to be absent in healthy controls and in patients, who have outgrown their AD, but is still present at least a year after a successful clinical outcome following treatment with dupilumab.  

Using state-of-the-art single-cell sequencing methods combined with advanced flow cytometry and so-called suction blistering for collecting sample material, the project will characterize the composition of cells and proteins within skin lesions of AD patients. Compared to most other approaches, this multi-omics approach is expected to provide a much more accurate reflection of what is going on in this complex disease which shows considerable heterogeneity from patient to patient.  

The present project is an extension of a project previously supported by the LEO Foundation (LF18098) where Patrick Brunner successfully refined and validated his sample collection methods. The present project may guide future targeted AD treatment approaches in a more personalized and stratified manner and may offer a relatively short way from bench to bedside.

Switching on melanogenesis: characterization of a yet undiscovered player in melanin production

Grantee: Marta Giacomello, Assistant Professor, University of Padua

Amount: DKK 3,990,000

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2021

Geography: Italy

The aim of this project is to further investigate the pathways leading to the production of melanin, a biological molecule that determines skin pigmentation and is responsible for skin color. The complex process for melanin biosynthesis, named melanogenesis, is not yet fully understood. Dysfunctional production of melanin reduces the protection of the skin from ultraviolet light and causes severe dermatological conditions like albinism and vitiligo.   

In preliminary studies, Marta Giacomello has found that the pro-apoptotic protein AIFM3 is likely to be pivotal for melanogenesis. AIFM3 controls the crosstalk among two cell structures: the ‘endoplasmic reticulum’ (important in the synthesis, folding, modification, and transport of proteins), and ‘mitochondria’ (the ‘motors’ that generate most of the chemical energy needed to power the cell’s biochemical reactions).   

Marta Giacomello’s research group will investigate this protein by analyzing its structure and function, its role in intracellular signaling cascades, its physical positioning within the cell and its role in melanogenesis.  

As AIFM3 is very poorly studied (~10 publications), the project will provide unprecedented insight into its role in determining skin pigmentation. 

Regeneration of new fat cells in skin wounds from epigenetically plastic myofibroblasts

Grantee: Maksim Plikus, Professor, University of California – Irvine

Amount: DKK 3,923,850

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2021

Geography: USA

The aim of this project is to study regeneration of new skin, complete with hair follicles, glands and adipose (fat) tissue.

Maksim Plikus will use a mouse model where many new hair follicles and adipocytes (fat cells) are formed from the center of large skin wounds. It is known that at the center of large wounds, there are cells (called myofibroblasts) that are essential for wound healing – and that these cells can ‘re-program’ into fat cells which are essential for scarless wound healing. This capacity to change is lost at the edges of large wounds and in smaller wounds.

The re-programming will be investigated by looking into how the myofibroblasts change during wound healing and identify the source of the fat cell growth factors responsible for the change. The findings will be used to better understand why these changes do not take place at wound edges but start from the wound center.

If successful, the project may pioneer a new research direction on regenerative wound healing and inspire new therapeutic approaches to scarring.

Investigating the developmental basis for anatomical variations in wound repair and disease susceptibility

Grantee: Tanya Shaw, Senior Lecturer, King's College London

Amount: DKK 2,498,527

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2021

Geography: United Kingdom

The aim of this project is to investigate why skin in the facial region heals faster and often with less scarring than the rest of the body but are still prone for other fibrotic diseases like keloid scars. 

Tanya Shaw hypothesizes that this is due to the dermal cells of the face being of a different origin than cells at other sites of the body. Dermal cells of the face stem from so-called neural crest cells and these cells are known for their fast migration and capacity to develop into a multitude of differentiated cells.   

The approach of the project will be to:  

  1. investigate the genetics and epigenetics of keloid scars to determine to what extent they originate from neural crest cells  
  2. compare neural crest cell-derived fibroblasts to fibroblasts from other origins in term of plasticity and cell migration  
  3. manipulate the neural crest cell features in a mouse wound model to investigate if they are critical for wound healing and scarring.   

If the hypothesis can be confirmed, the project holds a strong promise for improvement of wound healing and scarring.   

Probiotics targeting Staphylococcus aureus toxin production in atopic dermatitis

Grantee: Hanne Ingmer, Professor, University of Copenhagen

Amount: DKK 2,681,665

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: Denmark

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. 

Genetic and Epigenetic Mechanisms of Steroid-Related Skin Inflammation

Grantee: Bryan Sun, Assistant Professor, University of California - San Diego

Amount: DKK 2,995,615

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: USA

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.  

The 2021 Gordon Research Conference on Epithelial Differentiation and Keratinization (GRC-EDK)

Grantee: Salvador Aznar Benitah, Professor, Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona

Amount: DKK 204,130

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: Spain

The 2021 Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on Epithelial Differentiation and Keratinization is the premier international meeting in epithelial biology.

The GRCs are known to promote intense interactions among the participants – who are experts in the field of the conference, leading to new knowledge, career mentoring, collaborations, and advancing as well as strengthening the field of the conference. This Gordon Research Conference will advance cutting-edge research in skin biology, promote translation of key findings to clinical practice, and further the careers of early stage investigators to maintain the highest level of innovation of this field in the future.

The LEO Foundation has previously provided support for the two previous Gordon Research Conferences.

Understanding the importance of cIAPs as NF-κB molecular switches in psoriasis

Grantee: Vasileios Bekiaris, Associate Professor, Technical University of Denmark

Amount: DKK 2,815,499

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: Denmark

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.  

Systemic effects of atopic dermatitis: Dysregulated immune responses to the intestinal microbiota

Grantee: Jeppe Madura Larsen, Senior Researcher, Technical University of Denmark

Amount: DKK 4,349,062

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: Denmark

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.

Granzyme B: A novel therapeutic target in cutaneous leishmaniasis

Grantee: David Granville, Professor, University of British Columbia

Amount: DKK 2,023,506

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: Canada

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.