In the mid 1980s, after studying most of his life, Chandra Mohan was successful. He was a doctor in the middle of a seropathology residency in Singapore, the country of his birth. He had a wife, a baby and a bright future.
Serology is a niche science, the study of serum, the components of blood cells and other bodily fluids. The field drew Mohan’s attention because, he said, he was insatiably curious and peering inside serum and analyzing its immune molecules was a great way to find out why diseases occur.
During his residency, one kind of patient commanded his attention.
“A good number of patients I saw had lupus,” said Mohan. “One of the things the patients and their families would always ask me was, ‘Am I going to die?’ and ‘Is there a treatment?’ At that time, we hardly knew anything about lupus, and the literature was very sparse,” recalls Mohan.
Those patients and their questions changed the trajectory of Mohan’s life.
“As a doctor, recognizing diseases and prescribing medicine to help cure patients was relatively easy, the bigger challenge was to find out why they are getting sick to begin with,” said Mohan, now Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UH.
He quit practicing medicine to pursue a doctoral degree at Tufts University in Boston, where he focused on the cellular immunology of lupus. He’s been at it ever since, and true to his word, today more lupus research exists and more curative and experimental science is underway, constituting a great part of what his laboratory does.
A Tricky Disease
Systemic lupus erythematosus (known as SLE or lupus) is a complex autoimmune disease that is difficult to diagnose, treat and defeat. The symptoms can fool you. You might feel tired or suspect you have a cold when, in fact, you have this disease that leads to chronic inflammation in multiple organs. Blood tests or kidney biopsy can confirm the diagnosis and extent of organ involvement, but these tests are invasive and often uncomfortable. Mohan is working to alleviate that pain by creating such diagnostics as home and saliva tests.
Mohan is responsible for the study which concluded that fish oil can help lupus patients combat one of the most common features of the disease—fatigue. The study noted lupus patients had reduced omega-3 fatty acids, which are powerful anti- oxidants provided by fish oil.
It’s a start for the disease that has had only one treatment approved in nearly 60 years.
“There are three major areas we need advances on concerning lupus,” said Mohan. “We need a better understanding of the disease; we need to know if we can diagnose and monitor the disease better using better biomarkers, and we need to know superior ways to treat the disease.”
Attacking on Three Fronts
A $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health supports Mohan’s understanding of the disease through examining the BANK1 gene which interacts with female hormones to increase lupus in women. Under a $600,000 Target Identification in Lupus grant from the Lupus Research Alliance, Mohan is attempting to treat lupus by testing an antibody that blocks the protein ALCAM (activated leukocyte cell adhesion molecule) elevated in several kidney diseases and in the urine of patients with lupus kidney disease. If the antibody block works, he could move onto translational studies and clinical trials, said Mohan, alluding to possible new drug cures for the disease. Mohan is also creating point-of-care diagnostics including those home test kits and saliva-based diagnostics.
Mohan credits his success to a large number of clinical collaborators across the U.S. and worldwide, as well as a talented and committed laboratory team.
Because he wants to share his information with as many people as possible, Mohan speaks to groups about lupus and his research. Tanesha Townsend, 31, was in the audience at one of his lectures. She was diagnosed with lupus at six years old.
It’s amazing that he saw the void that needs to be filled and he’s going to do what he can within the health industry,” said Townsend. “He doesn’t even have the disease, but he saw others who were suffering. Just amazing.”
Townsend continues to suffer with symptoms, missing one to two days a month from work. She said she had to teach herself to find the positive, even during the pain. “I’ll accept the pain, but I won’t dwell on the pain,” she said.
Maybe if Mohan continues to dwell on solutions, she won’t have to.