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Going after scleroderma

Rheumatologist wins grant to research tissue disorder and vascular disease

Because he is younger than many other medical researchers and because he believed his proposed research was more experimental than competing scientists’, 34-year-old Sohail Ahmed didn’t expect to win funding to study the causes of vascular disease in scleroderma patients. But Ahmed was wrong, and last month the School of Medicine assistant professor of rheumatology was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Scleroderma Foundation to help researchers develop data that can be used to seek funding for larger, more in-depth research in the future. Only one in five of the competing proposals was funded.

Scleroderma, which comes from the Greek words sclero, meaning hard, and derma, meaning skin, is a chronic connective tissue disease that can cause hardening of the skin, blood vessels, and internal organs. Approximately 300,000 people in the United States have the disease, and its exact cause or causes have not yet been determined.

Ahmed’s research will investigate what factors in the blood are responsible for causing vascular disease to progress in scleroderma patients. The blood vessels of these patients become inflamed, leading to narrowing of the blood vessels, destruction of smaller arteries, and fibrosis, which can cause the heart and lungs to work less effectively. By exposing normal blood vessels to the blood serum of people with scleroderma, he has seen that the serum contains antibodies that kill the normal cells through a process called apoptosis, but he doesn’t know why.

“We know that in scleroderma patients there is vascular disease, but we don’t know what is causing it,” Ahmed says. “While other people can measure the outcomes of vascular disease like pulmonary hypertension, the formation of digital ulcers, and Raynaud’s, we don’t truly know what is causing this.”

His precise goal is to better understand how the antibodies in the blood perpetuate vascular disease and how they contribute to the fibrosis of the skin. He also hopes to learn if there are factors in the blood that can predict how the disease will progress in different individuals, as well as a patient’s likely response to therapy.

“What I am doing is experimental in the sense that there is not a lot of research on the topic,” he says. “It’s also risky because I am trying to look for answers to something that has been very elusive.”

Carolyn Weller, vice president for education and research at the Scleroderma Foundation, which distributed just over $1 million in funding to eight researchers this year, says she is pleased to see proposals come in from younger researchers such as Ahmed.


“We’re very happy to see this trend,” she says. “It means we’re developing a rich breeding ground for our next generation of established researchers.”