En route to identifying peptide antigen triggers in psoriasis

Grantee: Asolina Braun, Senior Research Fellow, Monash University

Amount: DKK 4,007,900

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: Australia

Asolina Braun, along with her team and colleagues Professor Anthony Purcell and Professor Johannes Kern, aims to identify and characterize the key self-antigens presented to autoreactive T-cells in psoriasis (PsO) patients. Specifically, she will look at molecules displayed by the major psoriasis genetic risk determinant to identify new treatment targets.

Psoriasis is believed to be an autoimmune disease in which T cells of the immune system recognize short protein sequences (antigens) from the body’s own cells and subsequently attack and destroy tissues inducing a chronic state of inflammation. The initial priming of the T-cells occurs when antigens are presented on the surface of cells by human leukocyte antigen (HLA) receptors, the same molecules that need to be matched in organ transplantations. Among the HLA molecules, the HLA-Cw6+ variant is particularly abundant in psoriatic patients (50% of all and 80% of early onset patients), and Asolina and her team aim to characterize the specific antigens presented by this particular HLA receptor to identify potential targets for future immune therapy like the induction of tolerance in food allergies. The team has already generated the peptide (antigen) library necessary to investigate targets and has created a transgenic mouse model containing the desired HLA receptor to present the antigens. They will also use patient-isolated T-cells to examine the responses and identify the most important peptide antigens contributing to the disease. In parallel, they will investigate if the original trigger of the autoimmune response is caused by peptides from virulent (disease-causing) strains of the environmental pathogenic bacteria, Streptococcus pyrogenes.

Deciphering the mechanistic underpins of the inflammation-to-proliferation phase transition in human skin wound healing

Grantee: Ning Xu Landén, Associate Professor, Karolinska Institutet

Amount: DKK 4,164,510

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: Sweden

Ning Xu Landén’s project seeks to improve wound healing by identifying key regulators of cellular transition from inflammation to proliferation, a cardinal event during normal skin wound healing which is lacking in chronic wounds.

Ning and her team will approach this by mapping the spatiotemporal changes, both genetic, molecular and cellular, happening during the healing of acute wounds. Using this mapping, she and her team will then aim to identify the core genetic changes and intercellular crosstalk which regulates the inflammation to proliferation transition. Once identified, these changes and intercellular crosstalk will be characterized in more detail.

The ultimate goal is to identify the “master” regulators of inflammation-to-proliferation transition in order to improve and accelerate wound healing and thus minimize the risk of development of chronic wounds.

If successful, this project could pave the way for a novel approach to wound healing which may also eventually reduce subsequent scarring.

New therapy and diagnostics of psoriasis vulgaris and psoriatic arthritis based on new animal models

Grantee: Rikard Holmdahl, Professor, Karolinska Institutet

Amount: DKK 3,622,500

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: Sweden

Rikard Holmdahl and his team have discovered that mannan, a large natural sugar molecule found in yeast and plant cell walls, can induce a psoriasis-like condition in mice which strongly resembles human disease in terms of both genetics and clinical presentation.

The aim of Rikard’s research is to investigate the potential of this animal model to improve our understanding of disease mechanisms, predict disease progression and potentially treat psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis by modifying the sugar structure of mannan – hereby increasing the cellular level of reactive oxygen species which appears to be protective against disease development and progression.

In addition, Rikard’s team aims to identify new diagnostic (auto-)antibodies, found both in the mannan-induced psoriasis (MIP) mouse model and in a cohort of psoriatic arthritis patients, to improve early diagnosis and hence improve intervention.

If successful, the results could provide a new and more exact tool to further investigate what causes psoriasis and psoriasis arthritis, while at the same time potentially improving the efficiency of early diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

Genetic mechanisms of acne vulgaris

Grantee: Michael Simpson, Professor of Genetics, King's College London

Amount: DKK 2,870,799

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: United Kingdom

The aim of Michael Simpson’s project is to identify potential cellular or molecular targets for acne treatment, based on analysis of genetic variation found in a large pool of acne patients.

Acne vulgaris is a very common skin disease which is characterized by clogging and inflammation of the pilosebaceous unit, which consists of a sweat gland and a hair follicle including the hair itself. While various potential causes leading to the disease have been investigated over the years, the underlying disease mechanisms have not yet been sufficiently elucidated. One common approach to learning more about cellular and molecular causes for development of disease in some people is to investigate changes in the genes that influence the behavior and communication paths of cells – the signaling cascades known to be involved in the disease. Michael and his team have previously identified several areas (loci) in the human genome which are associated with acne.

They now want to study these areas in further detail to better understand the causal molecular and cellular events that lead to acne and hopefully identify targets for treatment. They will use a three-step approach. Firstly, by identifying the genetic variants linked to the disease by analyzing genetic data from more than 60,000 individuals with acne. Secondly, they will cross-link these variations to create a map of the signaling pathways and associated cells responsible. Finally, based on this mapping, they expect to be able to identify targets for future treatments of the disease. If successful, the results may provide the first steps towards a better and more targeted treatment for this very common and socially stigmatizing skin disease.

The LEO Foundation Award 2022 – Region EMEA

Grantee: Dr. Esther Hoste, Assistant Professor, Ghent University

Amount: USD 100,000

Grant category: LEO Foundation Awards

Year: 2022

Geography: Belgium

Dr. Esther Hoste is Assistant Professor at the Department of Biomedical Molecular Biology at Ghent University, Belgium.

She receives the award for her impressive ability to produce research at the forefront of our understanding of skin biology and as a recognition of her exemplary leadership to her team and to future generations of researchers. Esther Hoste is a talent that has already demonstrated an extensive track record of providing advances to our understanding of the skin and its diseases – with important findings on the mechanisms behind wound healing, skin regeneration, skin inflammation and skin tumor formation published by herself and her lab.

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Investigating the regulation of Interleukin-36 cytokine activity in the pathogenesis of generalised pustular psoriasis

Grantee: Mark Mellett, Group Leader, University Hospital Zürich

Amount: DKK 2,055,914

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: Switzerland

The overall aim of Mark Mellett’s project is to shed light on the differences and the mechanisms governing regulation of IL-36 activity in both skin inflammation and viral infection.

IL-36 cytokines (a substance secreted by cells that affect the response of nearby cells) are well-known to contribute to inflammatory skin diseases in particular generalised pustular psoriasis. Yet the mechanisms regulating the activitiy of the cytokines remain poorly understood.

Mark and his team suggest that IL-36 is an important response mechanism protecting the skin against viral infection and this response is “switched on” in error in generalised pustular psoriasis. They propose to elucidate the reasons for this to better understand how pustular psoriasis is triggered.

Molecular genetics of recalcitrant warts

Grantee: Hassan Vahidnezhad, Assistant Professor, Thomas Jefferson University

Amount: DKK 2,131,526

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: USA

This project led by Hassan Vahidnezhad aims to elucidate the mechanisms behind skin warts that do not resolve automatically.

Warts are very common, approximately present in 20-35% of the general population. While they typically disappear within a few months, some linger and may be hard to get rid of. These persistent warts are caused by infection with Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) in persons where the immune response is insufficient due to genetic defects. Particularly, defects in T cells are suspected as a causation, but exactly how the warts are formed and how they persist is to a large degree unknown.

Hassan and his team seek to identify the genetic and molecular causes of recalcitrant warts, which will not only better the understanding of the skin’s immunological response to HPV infection, but may also provide diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic improvements for patients with recalcitrant warts.

Control of cutaneous immune responses by T follicular regulatory cells in systemic autoimmunity

Grantee: Søren Degn, Associate Professor, Aarhus University

Amount: DKK 2,795,064

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: Denmark

This project, led by Søren Degn, aims to investigate the role of a newly discovered immune cell, the T follicular regulatory cell (Tfr), in controlling systemic autoimmunity.

Søren Degn and his team have discovered that Tfrs are able to maintain tolerance in the skin even in the face of systemic inflammation, which in that case appear to be reversible, but also that if Tfr control in the skin fails, the systemic inflammation becomes irreversible and chronic.

Using a mouse model where Tfrs are selectively deleted, Søren and his team will investigate immune responses and identify which specific self-antigens are targeted when the tolerance maintained by the Tfrs is lost.

A single-cell dissection of the mechanisms underlying the ocular adverse effects of dupilumab in atopic dermatitis

Grantee: Francesca Capon, Associate Professor, King's College London

Amount: DKK 2,053,475

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: United Kingdom

This project, led by Francesca Capon, investigates the molecular and cellular mechanisms of dupilumab-associated conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye), a comorbidity seen in one in three AD patients treated with the drug.

These mechanisms are poorly understood, and Francesca’s team wants to elucidate them by comparing immune profiles in blood samples from affected and non-affected patients. In addition, they will identify inflammatory molecules released by cultured immune cells treated with dupilumab to further understand the key signaling pathways.

The findings will enhance the understanding of dupilumab-induced conjunctivitis and eventually help improve treatment of patients with this condition.

The role of eosinophils in atopic dermatitis skin inflammation and itch

Grantee: Nathan Archer Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Amount: DKK 3,783,727

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2022

Geography: USA

This project led by Dr. Nathan Archer investigates the interplay between bacterial colonization and a specific immune cell, the eosinophil, in development of atopic dermatitis (AD).

AD is a very common skin disease, particularly amongst young people, and the associated healthcare costs in the U.S. alone are estimated at USD 5.2 billion. Thus, there is a strong incentive to better understand the disease to improve its treatment.

The cause of AD is still unclear, but one interesting observation is that a specific type of immune cell, the eosinophil, infiltrates the affected areas and correlates with disease severity. The role of these eosinophils in AD remains unknown, but initial observations by Dr. Archer and his team point to a link between skin colonization of a specific bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, and the observed infiltration – which may lead to both inflammation and itch. This bacteria-immune cell interaction is unusual, and Dr. Archer and his team will investigate the observed interaction in detail, with an aim to provide novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of AD.