EU grant for UMCG research into inflammation of blood vessels

EU grant for UMCG research into inflammation of blood vessels

UMCG researchers will conduct research into the inflammation of blood vessels (vasculitis) and in particular giant cell arteritis and granulomatosis with polyangiitis. These forms of blood vessel inflammation are severe autoimmune disorders that are caused by the body’s own immune system and often occur later in life. The research is part of the RELENT international research project, which brings together researchers and doctors from nine institutes and three biomedical companies. The European Commission has awarded the project, which will run for four and a half years, a total of €6 million from its Horizon 2020 programme. The UMCG, the only Dutch institute in the project, will receive more than €500,000 of this.

The aim of the project is to understand why patients with autoimmune disorders often suffer from flares, and whether tests can be developed to predict flare risk for individual patients. Whereas many patients with vasculitis suffer from regular flares, others do not. Each flare of the disease can cause more damage to the organs. Presently it is difficult for doctors to determine which patients will suffer from flares. If doctors can predict a relapse of disease activity, they can tailor the treatment to the individual patient.

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Disturbed regulatory mechanism
The researchers in Groningen will examine whether the regulatory mechanisms that activate and deactivate the immune system are disturbed in vasculitis patients, thus causing the immune system to become too active. They will conduct an in-depth study of the immune cells in patients’ blood, and will specifically examine whether the balance is disturbed between the proteins that induce the immune cells to become active and those that deactivate them. If this is the case, it may prove possible to measure these proteins and thus predict which patients are at high risk of flares.

The researchers will also investigate whether ageing of the immune system plays a role. We already know that as we age the immune balance changes and that this poses a risk for the development of autoimmune disorders. The researchers will study whether age-related changes in specific immune cells increase people’s sensitivity to developing vasculitis, and whether this differs between patients who suffer often or rarely from flares of the disease. This will involve isolating certain immune cells from the blood of patients and healthy people, and then analysing in detail certain components of these cells, such as DNA and RNA. The researchers hope to discover unique ‘signatures’ that can predict which patients have an increased risk to get a flare or relapse of the disease.

Systemic Vasculitis Expertise Centre
The RELENT research will be led by rheumatologist and internist Dr Liesbeth Brouwer and medical biologist Professor Peter Heeringa from the UMCG Expertise Centre for Systemic Vasculitis (coordinator Professor Coen Stegeman and daily coordinator Dr Bram Rutgers). Doctors and researchers from the Departments of Pathology & Medical Biology, Internal Medicine/Nephrology and Rheumatology & Clinical Immunology work together in this expertise centre to provide patient care and conduct research into all forms of vasculitis.