Environmental Triggers of Autoimmunity
Melodie Weller, Assistant Professor
Environmental exposures, including both chemicals and pathogens, have been thought to be triggers in the development of chronic diseases. The Weller Lab studies the role of select environmental exposures in the development of a chronic autoimmune disease called Sjogren's syndrome. This female-predominant autoimmune disease affects 1-4 million people in the United States and is characterized by decreased saliva and tear production, inflammation in the salivary gland tissues and development of autoantibodies. Beyond the significant impact on patients' quality of life, Sjogren's syndrome patients are often diagnosed with other autoimmune diseases, including Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis, and are 40 times more likely to develop non-hodgkin lymphoma. Currently, therapies for this disease are primarily limited to immune suppression or lubrication of ocular surfaces and oral mucosa. Low-level, chronic viral infections in connection with genetic susceptibility factors are thought to be the underlying triggers of this chronic autoimmune disease. Our lab has focused on further characterizing these viral signatures and identifying routes of exposure in patient populations. Projects in the lab utilize viral-genome sequencing, microarray, bioinformatics, molecular biology and cell culture to define the underlying mechanism(s) of autoimmunity. Ultimately, our goal is to understand the underlying triggers of Sjogren's syndrome to further develop preventative measures and/or targeted therapeutics.