Introducing Dr. Amr Sawalha
Even in medical school at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid, Amr Sawalha was interested in rheumatology.
“The etiology and pathogenesis of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases are not completely understood, and I felt that I would like to contribute towards a better understanding of these diseases by being actively involved in research,” he recalls. “The status quo has changed dramatically for some of these diseases, but certainly not for others. For example, rheumatoid arthritis used to be treated primarily with NSAIDs and now look at how many more options and biological therapies are available. The life of patients with rheumatoid arthritis has dramatically improved by all the new biologics. This is not the case in lupus or vasculitis, where not many new treatment options are available.”
Armed with this motivation to help people with these diseases lead better lives, he began a rheumatology fellowship at the University of Michigan in 2003. Today, he is an associate professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center & Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oklahoma City.
A Rare Disease
Sawalha’s most recent research deals with the genetics of Takayasu arteritis, a form of vasculitis. The rare disease affects large blood vessels, the aorta and the large branches that supply blood to the brain, arms and legs. The resulting inflammation can cause blockage of blood vessels that reduces blood supply to different parts of the body.
“We do not know what causes this disease, therefore our treatment options are limited and have serious side effects,” he laments. “If we understand the genetic basis of Takayasu arteritis, we will be able to understand how it develops.”
A Landmark Study
Research into the causes of and potential treatments for rare diseases like Takayasu arteritis is often hampered by lack of funding. Sawalha, however, is a recent recipient of a $50,000 grant from the VF to perform the first genome-wide association study of Takayasu arteritis. The research also will validate, fine-map and localize the genetic effects discovered for this debilitating disease.
“After we discover these genes, we will confirm our findings by specifically examining even more variants in the genes we discovered,” he says. Sawalha hopes his research will result in better treatments and better lives for patients affected. “This will be the first step towards developing more effective treatments.”
An Important Funding Source
Funding from the VF is critical to creating a better understanding of rare and serious diseases like Takayasu arteritis, Sawalha says.
“Research is very expensive and with the NIH budget being flat, support from foundations like the Vasculitis Foundation is critical to enable the development of better treatment options for patients with vasculitis,” Sawalha notes. “The VF will not be able to survive without the help and donations it receives from the dedicated people who provide financial support.”