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BMB Ph.D. student awarded Lupus Foundation of America Fellowship

Study Title: Unraveling How Omega-3 Fatty Acids Suppress Lupus Flaring
Mentor: James Pestka, Ph.D., Professor, Michigan State University

One of six researchers chosen nationally to receive the Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Summer Fellowship, Kate Wierenga is a fourth-year BMB student working in the lab of Dr. James Pestka in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The Pestka lab is focused on understanding how dietary and environmental exposures influence the development of the autoimmune disease lupus, a disease characterized by activation of the immune system against host tissues. This devastating and life-altering disease disproportionately impacts women of child-bearing age and of non-Caucasian descent. There are an estimated 250,000 patients in the US with lupus. Symptoms include pain, fatigue, skin rash, hair loss, cognitive impairment, and the disease often results in kidney failure if left untreated. There is no cure for lupus, and although there are treatment options to manage the disease, they come with myriad adverse side effects. 

Omega-3 (ω-3) fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects, and consumption of ω-3 fatty acid-rich fish oil has shown promise in prevention and treatment of lupus and other autoimmune diseases. Kate’s research is focused on understanding how dietary omega-3 fatty acids influence macrophages, a key cell type in the innate immune response. She is investigating how supplementation with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA can be used to combat macrophage activation induced by crystalline silica, an established human autoimmune trigger. Insights from her study may inform personalized nutritional intervention strategies to prevent lupus flaring and progression.