Finding ways to fight inflammation

Associate Professor Suzanne Bohlson brought to DMU a National Institutes of Health grant with her investigations on cellular processes relating to inflammation and infection.

Suzanne Bohlson, Ph.D., started doing research as an undergraduate at the University of California-Irvine, investigating how a circulating protein called C1q regulates the immune system. Twenty years later, she continues probing that and other proteins and cellular processes relating to inflammation and infection.

“I got into a fabulous lab as an undergraduate. That made science tangible for me for the first time,” says the new DMU associate professor of microbiology and immunology. “I also grew up in a family of scientists, so I’ve always been intrigued by science. The data are my drug.”

In addition to bringing to DMU her enthusiasm for research and teaching, Bohlson came with more than $256,000 in direct and indirect grant funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This R56 grant, an NIH high-priority, short-term project award, is the first such grant at DMU. It funds salaries for the University’s first postdoctoral researcher, Manuel Galvan, Ph.D., albeit briefly – in October, he accepted a position at Boston University – and for a lab technician, and provides lab support and supplies.

“I’m very grateful that Dr. Galvan joined me at DMU, even if only for a short time,” Bohlson says. “I’ve been working with him for several years and will continue to do so long-distance. His efforts made the NIH award possible.”

Bohlson’s research focuses on the roles of C1q and other proteins in clearing the body of dead and dying cells, necessary for maintenance of normal tissue and repair of damaged tissue. When this process of cellular ingestion, or phagocytosis, fails, the body becomes susceptible to chronic infections and autoimmunity.

Deficiency in C1q, for example, is the strongest known factor in susceptibility to the chronic autoimmune disease lupus. Because of this deficiency, a lupus sufferer’s immune system creates auto-antibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue, causing chronic inflammation, pain and damage to multiple systems in the body.

“Our studies have the goal of developing therapies that strengthen the body’s ability to ingest and kill infectious particles or dead and dying cells,” Bohlson says. “In addition to lupus, the process of inflammation is a major component of many other diseases such as atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and others.”

Previously an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine and an adjunct assistant professor at Notre Dame, Bohlson and her research colleagues have studied the processes and factors in phagocytosis using mouse cells because the preclinical models provided a solid basis for further experimentation. A next step is to continue those studies using human blood cells.

Using both animal and human subjects made applying for the NIH grant “a more complicated process,” she says, although she plans to continue using multiple experimental approaches because they are essential for defining disease mechanisms.

“The office of research at DMU was very efficient and effective at working with me to help move my protocols through the various committees so that the research could be approved,” Bohlson says. “This facilitated a rapid transfer of funds and an immediate start to my research program at DMU.

“DMU offers a balance between teaching and research that I find very attractive,” she adds. “It’s important that we have students in the laboratory, and there are a variety of programs at DMU that encourage us to have medical students, master’s students and undergraduates in the lab. The University has the facilities I need to get my research done, and it provides support to investigators to facilitate research programs. I came to DMU because I thought I could really contribute to the institution’s research and teaching mission, I thought my contributions would be valued here, and I love teaching medical students.”

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