Unveiling breakthrough lupus study, a milestone in autoimmune medicine

Professor Eric Morand and patient Vu Nguyen

“This is the sort of work we can only do at a place like Monash Health.”  – Professor Eric Morand.

Researchers have unlocked a key mechanism underlying the autoimmune disease lupus in a breakthrough discovery that could revolutionise treatment. Led by Professor Eric Morand, Associate Professor Joshua Ooi and Dr Peter Eggenhuizen, this world-first study offers hope for effective, long-term management of lupus and potentially other autoimmune conditions. 

Professor Morand, Director of Rheumatology at Monash Health, Dean of Monash University’s Sub Faculty of Clinical and Molecular Medicine and founder of the Monash Lupus Clinic, explains, “Lupus is a debilitating autoimmune disease with no cure and limited treatments.”  

It inflicts physical, emotional and social burdens; he states, “It can affect any part of the body but most commonly affects the kidneys, joints, skin, and heart. Affecting mostly young adult women, shortening their life by up to 10 years, and drastically reducing their quality of life.” 

The journey towards a breakthrough in lupus treatment began seven years ago when researchers Professor Richard Kitching and Associate Professor Ooi uncovered a pivotal mechanism in understanding autoimmune diseases. Their discovery found that people with autoimmune disease are deficient in specialised type of white blood cells called regulatory T cells (T-regs), indicating a failure in the body’s natural preventative mechanisms.  

A/Professor Joshua Ooi and Professor Eric Morand

Lead researchers Associate Professor Joshua Ooi and Professor Eric Morand. Photo credit – VESKI.

Building upon this foundational research, the new study spearheaded by Professor Morand, Associate Professor Ooi, and Dr Peter Eggenhuizen, alongside numerous other Monash researchers published in Nature Communications, marks a significant milestone in lupus exploration.  

“We’re very excited about this publication, which reflects a huge body of work by many people,” Professor Morand said. 

By harnessing molecules from healthy individuals, the researchers successfully reprogrammed faulty T-regs in lupus patients, and used them to halt the autoimmune response while preserving the integrity of the immune system. Professor Morand elaborates, “We can take genetic information from a healthy person without autoimmune disease, put that genetic code into the cells of a lupus patient… and switch off the autoimmune reaction.” 

A/Professor Joshua Ooi and Professor Eric Morand in a laboratory

Associate Professor Joshua Ooi and Professor Eric Morand in the laboratory. Photo credit – VESKI.

The implications of this seminal investigation extend beyond lupus, offering a beacon of hope for individuals grappling with many other autoimmune conditions too. Professor Morand envisions a future where this personalised approach could revolutionise autoimmune medicine, stating, “We have established a platform where we are confident the treatment can be easily repeated as needed. This technology can potentially address a spectrum of autoimmune diseases, offering tailored treatments for patients.” He adds, “At Monash Health, with our huge patient populations… we believe we’re incredibly well placed to do this over and over again.”

Patient involvement has been instrumental in driving this research forward, with individuals like Vu Nguyen, who has lived with lupus for three decades and is the founder of Lupus Victoria, finding renewed hope in the prospect of targeted therapies.  

Nguyen shares, “This new treatment will really help people living with lupus; if the treatment was around 30 years ago it would have made a real difference for me. It could really cut down the many different types of medicines we take. With this procedure, we could possibly need just one treatment.” 

Professor Eric Morand smiling with patient Vu Nguyen

Professor Eric Morand with patient and Lupus Victoria founder Vu Nguyen.

This sentiment is echoed by Professor Morand, who emphasises the invaluable contributions of patients to the process, stating, “This is the sort of work we can only do at a place like Monash Health because it involves direct interaction with the patient community, who generously donate their blood cells to research. We used the information from those cells to make this discovery and it’s the lupus patient’s own cells that we used to prove that it works.” 

Looking ahead, Professor Morand outlined the research trajectory towards clinical trials, emphasising the paramount importance of safety. He projected, “We predict it will be very safe… but going from a laboratory to a human trial setting requires a lot of work.” Despite the challenges, Professor Morand remains optimistic about commencing human trials within the next two years, underscoring the potential for this research to revolutionise lupus treatment. 

Professor Morand highlighted the unique advantage of working within a collaborative environment, where scientists and clinicians sit side by side and in partnership with patients, seamlessly integrating research findings with real-world patient care. 

The collaborative environment offers a unique opportunity and underscores the institution’s commitment to translational breakthroughs that push the frontiers of healthcare. With ongoing dedication and partnerships, the path to revolutionising lupus treatment is more evident than ever before. 


Approved by Professor Eric Morand, Director of Rheumatology at Monash Health, Dean of Monash University’s Sub Faculty of Clinical and Molecular Medicine and founder of the Monash Lupus Clinic