Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation Discovery
A big day for Tremia Appling is when she can get out of bed. She lives tethered to a 50-foot oxygen cord and counts herself lucky if she can stand up long enough to brush her teeth. She’s been pushed into a walker or wheelchair by her head-to-toe pain and fatigue, along with the 18 medications used to try to control the symptoms.
Until she was diagnosed with lupus seven years ago, Appling managed an office, regularly dashed off to the grocery store, paid bills and took care of her son.
"I used to be the average super mom,” she said.
"For 40 years you do whatever you want to do and all of a sudden you can’t tie your own shoe.”
Appling has lost patches of hair and typically suffers from a facial rash because of her medication, drugs designed to fight diseases such as cancer and malaria rather than specifically for her disease. She gained 50 pounds in two weeks because doctors had to treat her pneumonia with steroids. And now she is completely dependent on her husband, Dwayne Appling, 45, and son, Sheldon Rundel, 20, for everything.
"There needs to be something found out to help. I’m 41, in the prime of my life. I need to be out having fun,” she said.
Now there’s hope. Not right away, but years from now, the Oklahoma City woman and other patients suffering from autoimmune diseases such as lupus and Crohn’s disease could benefit from new research now being performed by Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientists.
They have discovered a mechanism that allows white blood cells to find and fight disease-causing microorganisms.
Researchers Drs. Lijun Xia, and Rodger McEver have determined how sugars in white blood cells work with a molecule known as E-selectin in blood vessels to direct help to the infection site.
"White blood cells are like police on patrol in the bloodstream,” Xia said. "When there’s a problem in the tissue, E-selectin in the blood vessels acts like an alarm.”
As white blood cells circulate in the bloodstream, the E-selectin acts like Velcro, grabbing the sugar on the outside of the cells. The cells slow and then can go where they’re needed to fight infection.
Sometimes the immune system goes crazy and calls in too many or too few white blood cells, said McEver, who holds the Alvin Chang Chair in Cardiovascular Biology at the foundation.
In autoimmune diseases such as lupus, the body’s protective system turns the body against itself. The body can be bombarded with things like foreign invading cells or viruses that the immune system is supposed to attack but may fail to recognize exactly what belongs and what doesn’t, said Tim Mather, director of research at OMRF.
The newly discovered mechanism could help scientists control the process when the body has trouble figuring out what is supposed to be there and what is foreign, researchers said.
Appling said she hopes their findings will lead to a successful treatment for lupus because she wants to be able to do the laundry, drive to the grocery store and run errands again.
"After all I’ve been through, I want to have my life again. All those things we used to complain about, I want to be able to do them,” she said. "I want to walk away from my walker.”
McEver said it will take many years before the knowledge can be applied to medicine that may help patients with lupus and Crohn’s disease or used to control seizures in conditions such as epilepsy.
"It’s basic research,” McEver said.
"Our findings coupled with those of other scientists will hopefully lead to new methods to diagnose and treat disease.”
OMRF’s Dr. Tadayuki Yago also contributed to the research, which was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
BY SONYA COLBERG Oklahoman
Published: May 25, 2010