UCSF Ushers in a New Era for Autoimmune Disease Research

By Kate Volkman Oakes on December 19, 2007
By Kate Volkman Research into autoimmune diseases is dawning on its golden age and UCSF is at the forefront, members of the San Francisco estate planning community learned recently. Scientists from the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis (RRAC) teamed up with the UCSF Planned Giving Program to present a luncheon on Oct. 30 to increase awareness of UCSF's leadership in the field among estate planners. RRAC Director Ephraim P. Engleman, MD, immunologist/rheumatologist Arthur Weiss, MD, PhD, rheumatologist David Wofsy, MD, and RRAC board member L. Holly Smith, MD, shared their insights. The support of the RRAC, they say, has spurred significant progress. Engleman and Smith, whose combined tenure at UCSF is more than 100 years, gave background about the advancements in the Division of Rheumatology at UCSF. "It's been one of the most effective specialty units at UCSF in carrying through basic science into human application."

Rosalind Russell

Weiss reported on the role of genetics in autoimmune diseases, specifically on the research of genetic epidemiologist Lindsey Criswell, MD. In September, the New England Journal of Medicine published her studies, part of a multicenter study, which identified a critical gene that increases a person's risk for rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus. In Weiss' own lab, he and his team are altering genes in mouse models to identify which combinations of genes lead to lupus. "By understanding the combinations that lead to lupus, maybe we'll have better targeted therapy," he said. "Over the years, tremendous progress has been made in immunology and biotechnology," said Wofsy, "which has helped us to understand the chain of events that causes inflammation, pain and joint destruction in patients with rheumatoid arthritis." In the late 1990s, UCSF contributed to a major breakthrough in development of a drug for rheumatoid arthritis. Now, Wofsy is involved in running clinical trials of several therapies for systemic lupus, and has high hopes that at least one will be effective. "I think soon there will be the first biologic therapy in lupus. It's a very exciting time," he said.
L. Holly Smith, David Wofsy, Ephraim P. Engleman and Arthur Weiss.

From left, L. Holly Smith, David Wofsy, Ephraim P. Engleman and Arthur Weiss.

Weiss and Wofsy attributed such successes in part to collaboration among UCSF immunologists and rheumatologists with scientists at other universities. "There's a lot of cross-fertilization and collegiality that has been built," Weiss said. "Our basic science and our clinical science have now come together. Both pieces form the whole and, of course, that's where you always hope to be - where science is relevant to human disease." The US Congress created the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis, which was awarded to UCSF in 1979. The center is named after actress Rosalind Russell, who developed rheumatoid arthritis in the 1960s. Frustrated that doctors knew very little about arthritis, she successfully lobbied Congress to pass the National Arthritis Act. After she died, the center was established. To learn more about the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis, contact Olivia Herbert at 415/476-9878.