At its national meeting in November 2009, the Arthritis Foundation (AF) recognized the accomplishments of two leading professionals who have worked to improve the lives of patients with rheumatic disease—one in the area of clinical research, the other in patient advocacy and public policy. The foundation awarded the Lee C. Howley, Sr. Prize for Research in Arthritis to John O’Shea, MD, scientific director of the intramural research program at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., for his work in identifying a new class of drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and arthritis-related diseases. The foundation also awarded the Charles B. Harding Award for Distinguished Service to Laura Robbins, DSW, vice president of education and academic affairs at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Robbins has volunteered in a leadership capacity with the foundation for close to 25 years and has conducted numerous research studies on how patients cope with debilitating rheumatologic diseases.
Jaks as Drug Target
The Howley Prize recognizes researchers whose work in the previous five years represents a significant advancement in the understanding, treatment, or prevention of arthritis and rheumatic disease. It is named after the former chair of Revco DS, Inc., who was instrumental in the establishment of the Revco Arthritis Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“I am delighted to win this award; I can’t be happier,” says Dr. O’Shea. “All researchers convince themselves that the work they are doing will lead to better treatment and maybe even a cure for disease,” he adds. “This award recognizes the struggles and the ups and downs that took place over a decade and a half of work.”
In the early 1990s, Dr. O’Shea became the first researcher to clone human Jak 3. Jaks are essential for cytokine signaling. His research has resulted in the elucidation of biochemical mechanisms of signal transduction in immunologic reactions and defined the molecular basis of immunodeficiencies. He identified key biological steps by which cytokines exert their effects in immunologic and rheumatic diseases. These findings have led to the development of a new class of immunosuppressive drugs. Dr. O’Shea is leading a current phase III trial of a drug that will hopefully be shown to block this Jak inhibitor. “This drug will block Jaks and presumably have the same effects as the new drugs that target cytokines, but it is in pill form, and that makes it much more convenient for patients,” he says. The result, he hopes, will be dramatic improvement in the treatment options for patients with RA and arthritis-related diseases.