Case Western Reserve awarded $1.9 million grant for psoriasis research

Grant to support investigation of possible new treatments

Nicole Ward CWRU School of Medicine
Photo by Billy Delfs.

A dermatology researcher at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine has secured a five-year, $1.9 million federal grant to explore whether a specific molecule may play a pivotal role in the development and progression of psoriasis.

Nicole Ward, assistant professor of dermatology, is investigating whether interleukin-17C (IL-17C), a protein key to the regulation of the immune system, may also play a role in the onset and escalation of psoriasis, a chronic, debilitating skin disease that affects an estimated 7.5 million Americans.

The award, from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health, is the second Research Project Grant (R01) Ward has received in the last eight months. This grant will allow her to build upon earlier research that suggested a relationship between IL-17C and another protein (called TNF-alpha) in the emergence of psoriasis.

Psoriasis, an inflammatory autoimmune disease, is characterized by raised areas of red, scaly, itchy and sometimes painful patches of skin. Earlier this year, Ward and colleagues published an article in the Journal of Immunology that reported that psoriasis patients have elevated levels of IL-17C in their skin. Following treatment with TNF-alpha inhibitors, a standard therapy, IL-17C levels drop rapidly, even before the skin visibly improves. This development suggests that the presence, or interaction, of IL17-C and TNF-alpha are critical for the pathogenesis of the disease.

Ward and her colleagues also found that mice genetically engineered to overproduce IL-17C in the skin develop spontaneous lesions that resemble human psoriasis, suggesting a potential critical role for this molecule in disease initiation. She now hopes to identify how IL-17C synergizes with other inflammatory molecules to cause disease—an understanding that may help identify a new target for drug development.

Although psoriasis is among the most common autoimmune diseases in the country, its cause remains unknown. While treatments to alleviate the condition exist, psoriasis has no cure. Individuals diagnosed with psoriasis also are more likely to be diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease and depression. Even more troubling, psoriasis patients generally die seven to 10 years earlier than those without the disease.

Research funded by the NIAMS grant will be directed by Ward with collaborators and co-authors of the Journal of Immunology paper, Thomas McCormick of Case Western Reserve, and Johann Gudjonsson and Andrew Johnston of the University of Michigan.

In addition to the NIAMS grant, Ward’s research is supported by the National Psoriasis Foundation, the Murdough Family Center for Psoriasis and additional grants from the National Institutes of Health.