USM Professor Researches Causes of Lupus

USM Professor Stephen Pelsue

USM Professor Stephen Pelsue

With funding from the Lupus Research Institute, Dr. Stephen Pelsue has identified a gene (Ttc7) that has caused flaky skin in mice, a condition that shares similar features with human autoimmunity and lupus—one of the most serious autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmunity occurs when the immune response attacks its own cells and tissues, rather than fighting off infections. Besides lupus, prominent examples among humans are celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Very difficult to diagnose, lupus arises more often in women than men and can affect many different body systems, including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart, and lungs. Estimates indicate that as many as 1.5 million Americans have lupus, and there has been no FDA-approved therapeutic in 50 years.

The Pelsue Laboratory at USM, including undergraduates, master- and doctoral-level students, is participating in efforts to uncover the function of the gene and to find a specific pathway between it and the other genes with which it interacts. These studies could help gain significant insights into how lupus develops in its early stages. If so, the team ultimately hopes to contribute to earlier identification of the disease and possible ways to help modify it.

“This work opened a whole new world for me,” says Jennifer Walker, a mother of two boys and former public school teacher, who chose to pursue her Ph.D. and work in Pelsue’s laboratory rather than move out of state.

“I could have gone elsewhere,” adds Walker, who earned her master’s degree in 2007 from USM with a focus on immunology. “But this was a perfect opportunity to stay and work on a project that fascinates me. I just love it.”

The University of Southern Maine (USM) offers its nearly 10,000 students more than 115 areas of undergraduate and graduate study. USM’s location in southern Maine, a region cited as one of the most liveable in the country, offers a range of educational, cultural and recreational opportunities.

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