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Research

Autoimmunity

With its complex network of cells, proteins, tissues and organs, the immune system helps protect the human body from viruses, bacteria and other infectious agents. However, in patients with one of more than 100 autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks the body’s own organs and tissues.

Autoimmunity can be localized or systemic. In localized autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis, the immune system targets specific organs. By contrast, a systemic autoimmune disease (lupus being the prototype) attacks virtually any organ or tissue in the body. Both localized and systemic autoimmune disorders pose a difficult challenge for doctors since laboratory tests are inadequate in diagnosing and managing these patients.

Researchers at ASRI are on the forefront of several promising studies that could help doctors better diagnose and treat these baffling diseases. Susan Manzi, MD, MPH, and Joseph Ahearn, MD, have recently established the Lupus Center of Excellence at West Penn Allegheny Health System, a cutting-edge patient care and translational research center that brings together a multidisciplinary team of clinicians and scientists who address the myriad manifestations of lupus. Current plans are to create additional disease Centers of Excellence modeled after the successful efforts in lupus.

“Our investigators are focused on the etiology (cause), the pathogenesis (mechanisms) and the genetic susceptibility of lupus,” said Dr. Ahearn. “One of the most promising avenues of lupus research involves the use of biomarkers—blood tests that will not only facilitate a more accurate diagnosis of lupus, but also help clinicians to better monitor the progression of this disease and gauge a patient’s response to therapy. Furthermore, these tests will help identify those patients who are at risk for certain catastrophic events, such as heart attack and stroke.”

Dr. Ahearn noted that when treating a lupus patient with pharmaceuticals, one drug does not fit all. “A certain drug may work wonders for one lupus patient, but may be ineffective, even harmful, for another patient,” he said. “As part of our research, we are taking samples from patients and using molecular assays to help us predict which therapies are best suited to each patient. Our goal is to use theranostics, or personalized medicine, to create a customized therapy for each lupus patient. Theranostics also hold tremendous promise for the diagnosis and treatment of many other autoimmune diseases.”

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