Lausanne, 29 June 2020. The Fondation Leenaards has awarded its 2020 Scientific Prize to a team of researchers in the Lake Geneva region led by EPFL Professor Andrea Ablasser, working in partnership with Professor Michel Gilliet from the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). Their project, which has been awarded CHF 650,000, aims to gain insight into the causes and effects of an overactive innate immune system in people with autoimmune diseases. The team’s research will initially focus on three autoimmune skin diseases: psoriasis, lupus and scleroderma. The team then hopes to use its findings to develop new therapies for a wider range of autoimmune disorders, including chronic inflammatory diseases affecting other organs as well as neurodegenerative diseases.
The Fondation Leenaards has also awarded six research grants totaling CHF 1 million. These grants are distributed over a period of two to three years to support experienced clinicians in their research careers.
Our innate immune system plays an essential role in protecting us against infections. It’s designed to keep intruders at bay and can recognize a range of molecules that don’t belong in our bodies, like the DNA of viruses and bacteria.
The research conducted by Prof. Ablasser focuses on these fast-reacting defense mechanisms and what happens when they are triggered by mistake. When an intruder’s molecules are very similar to our own, our innate immune system can attack our own molecules by accident, causing perfectly healthy tissue to become inflamed and even self-destruct.
That’s what happens with certain autoimmune diseases: “The system intrinsically becomes hyperactive and is wrongly triggered, even if there’s no infection,” explains Prof. Ablasser. “The immune system then starts attacking DNA that has escaped from the nuclei of our cells because of an illness, stress or cell aging, for example.” This is what happens in several relatively common autoimmune skin diseases that Prof. Michel Gilliet – a dermatologist specialized in the skin’s immune response – is used to treating in his patients. These are: psoriasis, which occurs when skin regenerates too quickly; lupus, which causes the skin – and sometimes other organs as well, like with arthritis – to become inflamed; and scleroderma, which is the hardening of the skin.
Prof. Ablasser already made a major breakthrough in her earlier research: she discovered the cGAS-STING signaling pathway, which contains two molecules that act together to trigger particularly strong inflammatory reactions against viruses in the body. Prof. Ablasser and her team then went in search of a molecule that could block this process and found a substance capable of eliminating one of the molecules making up the signaling pathway. “We’re now looking at the therapeutic potential of this inhibitor in different pathological models, including autoimmune diseases,” she explains.
The prize-winning project will involve three main phases. In the initial phase, the aim is to gain more insight into the causes and effects of our innate immune system’s intrinsic hyperactivity, which is responsible for autoimmune diseases. The researchers will then test the physiopathological hypotheses resulting from the initial lab phase and develop new therapeutic strategies based on human tissue models. Finally, the team will test the beneficial effects of new STING-system inhibitors in vitro and in vivo, so that they can then be applied therapeutically.
This project is being carried out by Prof. Ablasser and Prof. Gilliet, along with their translational research team. Prof. Ablasser is a world-renowned expert in the biology of our innate immune system and runs her own lab in the Global Health Institute of EPFL’s School of Life Sciences; Prof. Gilliet, head of the dermatology and venereology department at the CHUV (School of Biology and Medicine at the University of Lausanne), is involved in conducting research and developing therapies for autoimmune skin diseases. The team will use its broad skill set to try and resolve a major clinical problem through a combination of fundamental research – aimed at understanding underlying physiopathological mechanisms – and clinical applications for patients. Both researchers hope that the results obtained from their models, like that for psoriasis, will help to improve therapies for a large number of other autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even Parkinson’s disease.
The Leenaards Prize for Translational Biomedical Research is awarded every year to between one and three research projects that bring together researchers from at least two different universities or teaching hospitals in the Lake Geneva region. Projects are selected because they use cutting-edge research to address a clinical problem in an innovative way. This prize also supports translational research projects that combine fundamental and clinical research in order to transform scientific discoveries into medical treatments.
The Scientific Grants enable clinicians to free up time for their research and keep up their clinical work while pursuing an academic career. With support from the Fondation Leenaards, the University of Lausanne’s School of Biology and Medicine has launched a call for applications for these grants.
Head of communications at the Fondation Leenaards, is available to help you set up interviews with the prizewinners and/or with representatives of the Fondation Leenaards.
Tel.: 021 351 25 55
Documents for the press: www.leenaards.ch/presse