A new project involving £5.1 million consortium of universities and industry partners will aim to eliminate the ‘trial and error’ approach to the treatment of lupus. The University of Manchester will lead the project alongside a consortium of universities including the University of Birmingham.

Elderly hands

Systemic lupus erythematosus (also known as SLE or lupus) is a condition which affects around 16,000 people in the UK – 90 percent of these are women and it is particularly common amongst people of African, Indo-Asian and Chinese origin. 

For reasons that are poorly understood, in sufferers, the immune system attacks healthy cells, organs and tissues causing severe inflammation. This inflammation can cause a range of problems including rashes, hair loss, arthritis, kidney involvement and blood disorders.

Long-term complications in SLE can include chronic fatigue, cataracts, early onset heart attacks and strokes, as well as kidney failure.

The new project launched today by George Freeman MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences is called MAximizing Sle ThERapeutic PotentiaL by Application of Novel and Stratified approaches (MASTERPLANS). It will seek to improve on the current ‘trial and error’ approach to treatment as many studies show that only 40-50% of patients will respond well to any particular treatment.

The University of Birmingham will play an important role having a large group of lupus patients under follow up by Professor Caroline Gordon (Professor of Rheumatology) and her clinical colleagues at City Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham that form part of the Birmingham Lupus UK Centre of Excellence who can be invited to take part in some of these research studies.

Professor Gordon has particular expertise in designing methods for assessing disease, analyzing response to therapy and designing clinical trials to test the results of the research study. She will be working with lupus patients on study designs, implementation and result dissemination on behalf of the research collaboration. The most novel aspect of the Birmingham contribution to this study however, will be working with Dr Stephen Young (Senior Lecturer in Rheumatology) on the use of a technique called metabolomics to study of small natural chemicals in blood and urine that we hope will enable us to develop techniques for predicting what type of complications may occur in lupus patients and which medicines will work best in an individual, as we have successfully used this technique on other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

This research will be enhanced by the development of the Institute of Translational Medicine (ITM), a new world class clinical research facility in Birmingham opening in 2015. The centre will help progress the very latest scientific research findings from the University into enhanced treatments for patients across a range of major health issues including inflammatory diseases.

By getting the right treatments to patients first time the new approach will reduce the time needed to get SLE under control and also reduce long-term complications which are often related to poor control of disease as well as the long-term use of steroids in this population. Such an approach will also be a better use of healthcare resources.

The new project is a field of study, known as stratified medicine, involving the study of large numbers of patients to identify smaller groups for more personalised treatment based on their particular genetic and biological characteristics. The team envisages that this approach will increase the success rate of treatments for individual patients.

The consortium also includes the Universities of Bath, Liverpool, Leeds and Cambridge, alongside King’s College London, Imperial College London, University College London and the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit.

The institutions will work alongside industry partners including Aeirtec Limited, Aurinia (Vifor), The Binding Site, Epistem, GSK, Imagen Biotech, Medimmune, Myriad RBM, Roche/Genentech, UCB and Pfizer.

The project will last four years and is majority funded by a £4.2m grant from the Medical Research Council. Professor Sir John Savill, the MRC’s chief executive, said: “The goal of stratified medicine is to provide patients with the best treatments by ensuring that existing medicines are targeted at those who will derive most benefit but also by accelerating the development of new therapies. Achieving this goal requires partnerships that harness the diverse mix of knowledge, expertise and commitment of academia, industry and patients.

Professor Bruce who is also Honorary Consultant Rheumatologist at Manchester Royal Infirmary, said: “From my own clinical experience of treating SLE patients, it is clear that SLE is a condition ripe for a stratified medicines approach. A number of new treatments are coming through for SLE and we desperately need better ways to target treatments to the patients most likely to benefit from them. 

“Our consortium brings together a number of leading UK universities with pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies. The combined strength of our research expertise will help us to quickly translate results into clinical practice for the benefit of SLE patients, not only in the UK, but also in other parts of the world.”

  • Find out more about Professor Caroline Gordan
  • Find out more about Dr Stephen Young 
  • Find out more about the funding and project