JianRong Sheng, assistant professor in the department of neurology and rehabilitation at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, was awarded an MDA research grant totaling $317,058 over three years. The funds will help support Sheng's study of potential therapeutic treatments for myasthenia gravis (MG).
MG is an autoimmune disease — a disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the body's own tissues. The attack occurs at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), the space where signals pass between muscle and nerve.
Most MG occurs when the immune system uses special proteins called antibodies to target either the acetylcholine (ACh) receptor, or muscle-specific kinase (MuSK), a protein that helps organize ACh receptors on the muscle cell surface.
"Current major therapies for MG produce general, nonspecific suppression of the immune system and are associated with significant long-term risk of infection and malignant tumors, and are therefore not optimal for treatment," Sheng explains. "There is a need to develop more focused treatments that only target those immune cells responsible for causing diseases without otherwise affecting the remainder of the immune system."
In previous studies, Sheng has shown that a growth factor called GM-CSF prevented development of a disease resembling MG called experimental autoimmune myasthenia gravis (EAMG). The treatment increases numbers of T cells and B cells, and Sheng showed that the T cells suppressed MG-associated antibodies.
Now, Sheng and colleagues are working on discerning the function, mechanisms and therapeutic potential of B cells in EAMG, and evaluating new medications aimed at mobilizing the cells for the treatment of MG.
Sheng's work potentially could change the fundamental approach to the treatment of MG from general, nonspecific immune suppression to focused, individualized and more specific therapy.
Funding for this MDA grant began Aug. 1, 2012.