UT-Houston Awarded $2.5 Million For Scleroderma Research

September 15, 1997

HOUSTON - (September 17, 1997) - The University of Texas-Houston has been awarded $2.5 million by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases to establish a Specialized Center of Research (SCOR) in scleroderma, a chronic, often fatal connective tissue disease. Headquartered in the UT-Houston Medical School division of rheumatology and clinical immunogenetics, the center will conduct a wide range of investigations into the disease for which there is no known effective treatment or means of prevention.

The award spans four years from September 1997. It will support both clinical and basic investigations aimed at determining the genetic and environmental factors that affect susceptibility to scleroderma, so named because of the hardening of the skin and scarring of internal organs which afflict sufferers. By establishing a SCOR in scleroderma, the NIH is enabling scientists and physicians to attack the problem on a broad front, offering hope to the approximately 500,000 Americans diagnosed with the disease.

The center's director and principal investigator is Frank C. Arnett, M.D., professor and director of the division of rheumatology and clinical immunogenetics. He heads a multidisciplinary team of experts drawn from UT-Houston Health Science Center, UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, UT Medical Branch at Galveston, and the UT Medical School at San Antonio. Studies will focus on three project areas: identifying the genetic factors underlying scleroderma; elucidation of the mechanisms of collagen regulation, leading to the skin tightening; and a large survey of epidemiologic and genetic factors that may determine, or help physicians predict, disease outcomes in several different ethnic groups.

While potentially devastating, scleroderma is relatively uncommon making it difficult to conduct genetic studies in affected families. In the course of more than 10 years of investigations, members of the UT-Houston rheumatology division have identified a group of people, the Choctaw Indians of southeastern Oklahoma, in which the disease is prevalent, giving scientists a unique opportunity to search for scleroderma susceptibility genes. Mapping these genes will be the object of one of the three SCOR research program projects.

Julia Freeman, Ph.D., centers program director at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, says the SCOR in scleroderma breaks new ground: "The UT-Houston-led center is the first that we have established in scleroderma. It brings together three talented research groups. To have such a wealth of expertise focused on revealing the genetic and environmental basis of the disease is a truly exciting prospect."

Commenting on the news that UT-Houston has been selected as the first SCOR in scleroderma, President M. David Low said: "The NIH decision is both welcome and appropriate. Dr. Arnett and his colleagues are at the cutting edge of research on the complex and heartbreaking problem of scleroderma. I am delighted that their work has been recognized in this way."

Arnett attributes the success of UT-Houston's research proposal in large part to the dedication of scleroderma patients, their families and friends: "Without their commitment and tireless efforts to raise public awareness of scleroderma - and to clearly get it on the national agenda of research priorities - we would not be in the position we are today. While important strides have already been made thanks to the generous support of The Scleroderma Federation and The United Scleroderma Foundation, the SCOR funding will allow us to do much more basic and clinical research. Crucially, it will speed up the process of finding ways to prevent and treat this devastating disease, which claims the lives of 50 percent of sufferers within five years of onset."

Dr. John D. Reveille, professor, division of rheumatology, UT-Houston Medical School, will be co-director for the center's clinical studies; Dr. Benoit de Crombrugghe, professor of molecular genetics at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, will be co-director for basic studies. Together with Arnett, they will each lead one of the SCOR projects. Dr. Joann Moulds (UT-Houston rheumatology) will head a laboratory, which will produce, maintain and store tissue cultures obtained from subjects participating in the studies. As well as providing DNA for genetic analysis, this core facility will be available as a national resource for scleroderma research. An expert in biostatistical analysis, Dr. Chul Ahn of UT-Houston department of internal medicine, will join the SCOR directors in analyzing data from all the projects and managing the large amounts of information generated.
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University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

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