Shiva Shahrara, PhD, started her rheumatology research career with a fellowship working in the lab of Alisa Koch, MD, at Northwestern University in Chicago. During her fellowship, she worked on identifying the factors involved in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
When Dr. Koch moved to the University of Michigan, Dr. Shahrara started doing her own research into RA pathogenesis with the help of the Within Our Reach RA Research Award from the Rheumatology Research Foundation, which she received in 2008.
“At the time I was applying for the Foundation award, I had a K award through [the National Institutes of Health] NIH that was in its final stages, and I was submitting bigger grants, but usually NIH wants investigators to have smaller grants before committing to five-year grants,” Dr. Shahrara says. “I felt this was a good opportunity. At the time, I was working with a factor called IL-17, and there were a huge number of labs that were interested in this molecule that is produced from a specific type of T cells [TH17], and I became very interested in that because we were among the first labs that identified that IL-17 was important in RA joints.”
Dr. Shahrara wanted study the function of IL-17 in the joints of RA patients. She applied for and received Foundation funding to study the role of IL-17 in RA cells. “Even today the research we’re doing is a continuation and it’s based on our finding from the Foundation [grant],” she says. “[The Rheumatology Research Foundation] was really instrumental in my career because it basically bridged my funding from my K, when my K was in its final phases. The funding provided by the Foundation enabled me to get a big Department of Defense grant, which is comparable to an R01. It really made a significant difference in my career.”
Dr. Shahrara’s Foundation grant was for two years, with an extension for a third, and has resulted in 14 published papers. The research team learned that IL-17 plays an important role in both recruiting myeloid cells to migrate from the blood to the joint and perpetuating vascularization, either directly or through inducing other chemokines. But her findings went beyond the role of IL-17. Using microarray analysis, Dr. Shahrara and her research team were also able to identify genes that were regulated in RA cells but not normal cells.