Dr. Jolien Suurmond is a postdoctoral researcher at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research that has throughout her research career been intrigued by the immune system and how it is able to distinguish between our own cells (self) and cells from a foreign origin (non-self). An antigen is a toxin or foreign substance which elicits an immune response, especially the production of antibodies. B cells are white blood cells that have two key roles in launching an immune response – presentation of antigens to other cell types and secretion of antibodies. In her first year as an ANRF scholar Dr Suurmond focused on identifying how the B cell response to self (autoreactive) differs from the response to foreign antigens.
Antinuclear antibodies (ANA) are a group of autoantibodies produced by a person’s immune system when it fails to adequately distinguish between “self” and “non-self” and are a feature in a number of autoimmune conditions including lupus. There are different ANA+ B cells arising from different pathways and resulting in different characteristics. Categorizing Lupus patients based on these different B cells provides a unique opportunity to target disease-specific pathways using precision medicine, thereby decreasing the degree of immunosuppression in different patient groups. Dr Suurmond is hopeful that defining these differences in B cells in lupus will offer up alternative therapeutic targets specific to distinct differentiation/activation pathways.
As a second-year grant holder Dr Suurmond will be studying the gene expression in these B cells. The specific goal she hopes to achieve is to discover new molecules on these B cells that can be used to treat the two groups of SLE patients.
Only one new therapeutic has been approved for the treatment of SLE in the past 60 years. No current therapies for autoimmune disease target plasma cells specifically. Current therapies for SLE and other autoimmune diseases are also highly immunosuppressive and therefore increase susceptibility to infections which remains a major complication for patients.
“There is an urgent need for more specific therapies that affect only autoreactive cells or pathways. The results of these studies may reveal novel molecular targets that can diminish these side effects. I am highly motivated to contribute to such discoveries.”