Andrea Ablasser wins the Leenaards Foundation's 2020 Science Prize

EPFL Professor Andrea Ablasser shares the Prize with Professor Michel Gilliet from the CHUV. Their project aims to gain insight into the causes and effects of an overactive innate immune system in people with autoimmune diseases.
© 2020 EPFL / Alain Herzog

On Monday June 29, the Fondation Leenaards has awarded its 2020 Scientific Prize to a lemanic team led by EPFL Professor Andrea Ablasser, working in partnership with Professor Michel Gilliet from the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). Their project, which has been awarded CHF 650,000, aims to gain insight into the causes and effects of an overactive innate immune system in people with autoimmune diseases. The team’s research will initially focus on three autoimmune skin diseases: psoriasis, lupus and scleroderma. The team then hopes to use its findings to develop new therapies for a wider range of autoimmune disorders, including chronic inflammatory diseases affecting other organs as well as neurodegenerative diseases.

Our innate immune system plays an essential role in protecting us against infections. It’s designed to keep intruders at bay and can recognize a range of molecules that don’t belong in our bodies, like the DNA of viruses and bacteria. The research conducted by Prof. Ablasser focuses on these fast-reacting defense mechanisms and what happens when they are triggered by mistake. When an intruder’s molecules are very similar to our own, our innate immune system can attack our own molecules by accident, causing perfectly healthy tissue to become inflamed and even self-destruct.

Assessing therapeutic potential

A world-renowned expert, Prof. Ablasser already made a major breakthrough in her earlier research: she discovered the cGAS-STING signaling pathway, which contains two molecules that act together to trigger particularly strong inflammatory reactions against viruses in the body. Prof. Ablasser and her team then went in search of a molecule that could block this process and found a substance capable of eliminating one of the molecules making up the signaling pathway. “We’re now looking at the therapeutic potential of this inhibitor in different pathological models, including autoimmune diseases,” she explains.

The prize-winning project will involve three main phases. In the initial phase, the aim is to gain more insight into the causes and effects of our innate immune system’s intrinsic hyperactivity, which is responsible for autoimmune diseases. The researchers will then test the physiopathological hypotheses resulting from the initial lab phase and develop new therapeutic strategies based on human tissue models. Finally, the team will test the beneficial effects of new STING-system inhibitors in vitro and in vivo, so that they can then be applied therapeutically.

Hope for other diseases

Both researchers hope that the results obtained from their models, like that for psoriasis, will help to improve therapies for a large number of other autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even Parkinson’s disease.