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Rock Street, San Francisco

By Lea Terry

 

First recognized in 1933, Sjogren’s
Syndrome is a painful condition that causes severe dry eyes and dry mouth, and
in some cases other symptoms that can include everything from joint problems to
skin rashes. There’s no cure or treatment for the underlying cause of this
autoimmune disorder, but one local researcher hopes to change that. And now,
she’s getting significant help thanks to a grant from the Rheumatology Research
Foundation.

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Darise Farris, Ph.D., a researcher
with Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, recently received the Rheumatology
Research Foundation’s Innovative Research Award. The grant provides $400,000
over a two-year period so that investigators can pursue work that might lead to
breakthroughs contributing to treatments or even a cure.

“It’s very exciting, because we
know that we are on the right track with our studies, and we’re getting very
promising preliminary data, but we needed funding to move the work forward,”
Farris said.

Painful Symptoms

Sjogren’s Syndrome is an autoimmune
disease that’s often found in conjunction with other autoimmune diseases such
as arthritis and lupus. Although it can affect anyone, it’s more prevalent in
women and people over 40. In fact, of the 3 million people affected in the
United States, it afflicts women by a 9-to-1 ratio. The disease causes the body
to attack its moisture-producing glands, namely the salivary glands, which
produce saliva, and the lacrimal glands, which are responsible for tear
production. This can interfere with the body’s ability to produce saliva and
tears, leaving patients with dry, itchy and painful eyes, as well as intense
dry mouth and difficulty talking, chewing or swallowing. The Sjogren’s Syndrome
Foundation notes that the disease can affect other areas of the body as well,
causing neurological problems such as memory loss and impaired concentration,
as well as lung problems and several other issues. While there are treatments
for the symptoms, there is no cure and no way to address the underlying cause.

Farris has been researching the
antigens involved in the disease for several years, and in 2010 she became
involved in the Sjogren’s Syndrome Center of Research Translation at OMRF. The
center was a national institute that created a center of research for the disease.

To be diagnosed with Sjogren’s, patients typically need to have a biopsy of the
salivary glands, and researchers at the center received samples of these
tissues for their research. This led to many of the developments they’ve had
since 2010, and was the basis for the research they published in the journal
“JCI Insight.” This research, in turn, helped lead to the grant Farris
received.

“Obtaining samples of that target
tissue from humans is challenging, and once these samples are obtained, I think
it’s very difficult to study the very small amounts of immune cells that are
present in these tiny pieces of tissue,” Farris said.

Thanks to new technology, however,
researchers are better able to study these tiny cells. Farris is focusing her
research on using this new technology to take a closer look at the cells, and
she says this development is a primary reason why researchers are finally
getting closer to discovering the immune responses taking place in these
tissues.

Mysterious Illness

It’s not clear why some people
develop Sjogren’s and others don’t, and Farris said one of the big questions
with the disease is why it specifically targets the salivary and lacrimal
glands. The antibodies the body produces target proteins that are present in
every cell, not just in those two glands. Farris and her team suspect that the
auto immune response targets something present specifically in the salivary and
lacrimal glands.

“These are what we call antigens,
and we believe that these proteins have not been discovered yet, and this is
what we’re looking for,” Farris said.

To apply for the award, Farris had
to submit a standard research grant application that explained the potential
significance of her work, as well as what questions she and her team were
addressing, what technology they planned to use to do that, and any promising
preliminary studies they’d conducted that suggested their work might be
successful.

Farris is an associate member of
the Arthritis & Clinical Immunology Research Program at OMRF, and is also
an adjunct associate professor in the Departments of Microbiology and
Immunology and Pathology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

She graduated summa cum laude from Oklahoma Christian University of Science and
Arts, and then earned a graduate degree from the University of Oklahoma Health
Sciences Center. She earned her Ph.D in Immunology from the University of
Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and later completed postdoctoral studies at the
University of Melbourne in Australia. Farris has won several honors during her
scientific career, including the OMRF Merrick Young Investigator Award. She was
also an OMRF Foundation Fellow and a National Arthritis Foundation Fellow.

To learn more about Sjogren’s
Syndrome, visit www.sjogrens.org.

 

 

 

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