July 1, 2003

Salk researcher wins major National Institutes of Health grant for work on brain-immune interactions, Potential Autoimmune Disease Treatments

Salk News

Salk researcher wins major National Institutes of Health grant for work on brain-immune interactions, potential autoimmune disease treatments

La Jolla, CA – A Salk Institute scientist has been awarded a $3.3 million grant and the Jacob Javits Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his work in identifying how the immune and nervous systems interact to ward off disease, which may result in treatments for such autoimmune diseases as multiple sclerosis.

Paul Sawchenko, professor and director of the laboratory of neuronal structure and function, was awarded the Javits Investigator Award for his grant proposal, one of a few selected each year by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The award extends support for Sawchenko’s original proposal from five to seven years.

The award will allow Sawchenko and his laboratory to examine how cytokines, a class of chemical messengers secreted by cells of the immune system, cross an anatomical obstacle called the blood-brain barrier to enact their effects on the brain. The research may eventually result in a better understanding of how autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and lupus arise, and may pinpoint cellular and molecular targets for developing treatments for these disorders.

Sawchenko’s lab focuses on how the immune system regulates a system of structures in the body called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. These structures, located in the brain’s hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands just above the kidneys, initiate key hormonal responses to stress and help regulate immune responses to disease and injury.

“The immune system uses the HPA axis to shut itself off and suppress immune function,” said Sawchenko. “A lack of this shutoff could result in autoimmune disease in people who are genetically susceptible. This award will help us conduct experiments to determine how the immune system’s influences cross over into the brain and regulate the nervous system’s responses.”

Sawchenko will test where a chemical called COX-2 (short for cyclooxygenase-2) is produced in the nervous system. COX-2, known for its effects in promoting inflammation and pain throughout the body, can also act as a trigger for the brain’s responses to infection or injury, including calling the HPA axis into action. He also will look at the roles played in this process by perivascular cells, which are immune cells located on the nervous (brain) side of the blood-brain barrier, adjacent to blood vessels. Their location as well as their ability to produce COX-2 strongly suggests a critical role in the brain’s ability to regulate the immune system, and vice-versa.

The U.S. Congress established the Javits Awards in 1983, which are conditional grants given to scientists selected from a pool of grant applicants every year. They are named in honor of the late U.S. Senator Jacob K. Javits, who was a champion of neuroscience research until his death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The NIH has made about 431 such awards in the last 16 years.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, located in La Jolla, Calif., is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health and conditions, and the training of future generations of researchers. Jonas Salk, M.D., founded the institute in 1960 with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.

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