Introducing Dr. Kathy McKinnon

Introducing Dr. Kathy McKinnon

Introducing Dr. Kathy McKinnon

June 2013:

Infection is the leading cause of death in patients with vasculitis. That’s why Kathy McKinnon’s research is so important.

“Our work focuses on evaluating the immunologic mechanisms of disease and treatment and monitoring immunosuppressive therapy with the goal of preventing infectious complications of treatment,” explains McKinnon, Director of the Vasculitis Center at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

“The research we are working on now was something we had been thinking about, but the death of a young man with GPA who came to us for treatment after developing resistant infection while on immunosuppressive therapy really pushed us to get out of the thinking phase and on to the active phase of work,” she continues. “It was devastating to have to tell him the first day that I met him that we might not be able to help him—and ultimately despite all of the efforts of a multidisciplinary team of very dedicated physicians, we were not able to.”

Patients & Research

Forming relationships with patients and their families is one aspect of rheumatology McKinnon finds especially rewarding, along with “helping patients attain and maintain the things that are important to them—like their role in their family or their career.” Another is the science. “I enjoy the challenge of dealing with these complex diseases that have unique manifestations in each patient,” the Michigan native says.

And it is a challenge. Though much progress has been made in diagnosing and treating vasculitis, there are still many unmet needs for patients, and that compels McKinnon to continue her bench work.

“Taking care of vasculitis patients reminds me on a daily basis where we still fall short and what our patients need us to work to improve,” she admits. “Through our research, I might be able to help improve care and quality of life for our patients.”

A Team Approach

McKinnon’s work at Henry Ford is supported by a multidisciplinary team, which improves patient care and access to research data:


  1. The Infectious Disease division is involved in designing of current research studies, helping determine the best means of evaluating the immunopathology of infection risk in our patients, aiding in evaluation and treatment of our patients, and are helping develop preventative measures against infections.
  2. The Critical Care division will be helping evaluate factors contributing to infections in vasculitis patients in the intensive care units, and is collaborating in a pilot study examining this in patients with GPA.
  3. The Nephrology and Pulmonary divisions are committed to collaborative care and treatment and the development of the Vasculitis Research Registry.


The collaboration extends beyond the hospital, too. McKinnon is working with Dr. Amr Sawalha at the University of Michigan, whose research is funded by the Vasculitis Foundation. Sawalha’s work focuses on the genetics and epigenetics of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, including Behcet’s disease and Takayasu arteritis.

“His work in genetics and epigenetics will be invaluable in furthering our understanding of about the immunologic responses to treatment and vulnerability to infection,” McKinnon explains.

McKinnon is working another promising development: A standardized way to assess immunologic function that would allow physicians to adjust patients’ medications to minimize their risk of infection while keeping their immune systems quieted enough to minimize their risk of disease flares. (Currently, doses are based on body weight or “routine dosing”). This is important, McKinnon says, because “each person is immunologically unique, and can be either over-or under-immunosuppressed using the current approach to treatment.”

The work is a labor of love for McKinnon, who wanted to be a physician from a very young age. And she’s excited about the growing the multidisciplinary network of vasculitis physicians and researchers. That network includes the VF. “It’s a wonderful resource that supports not only the science involved in treating vasculitis but also provides an amazing network of social and emotional support, which is a very important for patients and their families that are affected by these diseases.”