How Philanthropy Fuels Autoimmune Disease Research

When Jessica Hamerman, PhD, needed an expensive technology to move closer to stopping a life-threatening complication of multiple autoimmune diseases, the Gilbertson Foundation stepped in to help. The Gilbertson Foundation works to advance biomedical research for conditions like type 1 diabetes (T1D) and multiple sclerosis (MS) – which helps explain why they’ve supported Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason’s (BRI) groundbreaking discoveries in this space for nearly a decade.

Dr. Hamerman studies macrophages (cells that should eat bacteria). She and Holly Akilesh, PhD, recently discovered that a related cell causes a dangerous anemia called macrophage activation syndrome (MAS), a condition that strikes when these cells start to eat up healthy red blood cells.

“Once we knew that these cells play a big role in MAS, we started looking into ways to block or get rid of them,” Dr. Hamerman says. “But to do that, we needed an advanced machine to extract detailed information from our samples. The only one available was at the University of Washington, so we had to drive there three times a week just to analyze our results.”

These efforts inspired the Gilbertson Foundation to give BRI a generous donation to purchase a Drew Scientific Hemavet 950FS hematology analyzer of their own. This machine enables Dr. Hamerman’s team to understand how cells involved in MAS develop and function. The more they learn about these cells, the closer they get to therapies that can stop them from causing MAS.

This tool will not only serve Dr. Hamerman’s current research but will also fuel many other BRI studies, giving insight into autoimmune diseases such as T1D, MS, lupus and more.

“It’s exciting to make progress against MAS, which is so poorly understood and doesn’t really have any targeted therapies,” Dr. Hamerman says. “This tool will help us move research forward in a much faster, more productive way. And that wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of the Gilbertson Foundation.”

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