Autoimmune and Inflammatory Disease

Autoimmune diseases are disorders in which the immune system, for reasons that are not clear, starts destroying an individuals own cells, tissues or organs by triggering a process known as inflammation. These diseases include more than 80 serious, chronic illnesses that involve almost every human organ system. Collectively, they affect 15-20 million people in the USA. They are more common in women and are considered to be among the 10 leading causes of death in women in the US under the age of 65 years. Currently, there is no cure for autoimmune diseases. The treatments primarily include the use of anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive agents including the widely used COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors. However, with the recent findings that such drugs exert cardiovascular toxicity, the patients are left with limited choice for treatment. This has led to a surge in the use of plant products serving as complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) to provide relief from the symptoms of autoimmune disease. Thus, there is a dire need to identify and test specific compounds derived from plants/herbs that are currently being used as CAM.

The main objective of our Center is to pursue research in CAM that would test plant-derived compounds for their mechanism of immunosuppressive action and to test their efficacy in vivo against autoimmune diseases. To this end, we have initiated a number of projects: Project 1 will investigate the effect of resveratrol-mediated activation of Aryl Hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) and estrogen receptors (ER) on apoptosis in naive and activated T cells and dendritic cells and its efficacy in the treatment of experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE), a model for human multiple sclerosis. Project 2 will investigate the effect of compounds isolated from hemp oil in the suppression of immune response through vanilloid receptors for the treatment of autoimmune hepatitis. Project 3 will test the efficacy of American ginseng on colitis and colon cancer. The Center has created core resource facilities to screen the potential toxic effects of plant-derived compounds on the immune system and to support its research activities. The Center will create training opportunities for new investigators to pursue research on CAM and establish basis to initiate clinical trials on compounds that exhibit efficacy against specific autoimmune diseases.

The underlying focus of the NIH CAM Center is to study the mechanisms by which plant/herbal products suppress the immune system and inflammation so that they can be used as preventive or therapeutic modalities in the treatment of autoimmune diseases. We are currently studying disease models that include multiple sclerosis, autoimmune hepatitis and colitis.

The NIH CAM Center at USC is one of the 11 nation-wide Centers of Excellence funded by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an institute of NIH. This Center at USC was awarded $ 6 million over a period of five years starting October 1, 2007. Our Center is dedicated to understanding the mechanisms by which various plant-derived products can be used as preventive or therapeutic modalities in the treatment of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The long term goals of the Center are to develop bidirectional translational research that will lead to establishment of both bench-to-bedside and bedside-to-bench activities. The ongoing projects of the Center include: 1) To assess the mechanism of actions of resveratrol found in red grape skin on multiple sclerosis, 2) To study the effect of compounds found in hemp seed oil on autoimmune hepatitis and 3) Use of American ginseng on colitis and colon cancer.

Our Center is supported by state-of-art Immunotoxicology Core and Instrumentation Resource Facility (IRF), and synergistic research interaction between highly talented, experienced and well funded group of investigators with expertise in molecular and cellular immunology, pathology and pharmacology.