Sjogren’s Syndrome research in limelight

Dr. Cuong Nguyen
Dr. Cuong Nguyen holds a microchip capable of stories thousands of individual cells, which are profiled through a process called microengraving. (Photo by Sarah Carey)

Tennis star Venus Williams’ revelation that she had Sjogren’s syndrome not only increased the world’s familiarity with the debilitating autoimmune disease, it also caused some buzz in living rooms and laboratories right here in Gainesville.

“This news generated a lot of discussion among members of the community, and among my colleagues,” said Dr. Cuong Nguyen, a new faculty member in the college’s department of infectious diseases and pathology. Nguyen’s primary research involves the immunology of Sjogren’s syndrome. 

He also happens to be an avid tennis player.

“I was quite surprised when I heard Venus Williams had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome,” he said. “This disease occurs predominantly in middle-aged women. Therefore, it was quite a shock to hear the news, since she is only 31 years old.”

Sjogren’s syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease in which people’s white blood cells attach their moisture-producing glands. As many as four million Americans live with this disease, and nine out of 10 patients are women, according to the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation. Hallmark symptoms are dry eyes and dry mouth, but patients with the disease may also experience extreme fatigue and joint pain.

“That could greatly impact (Venus Williams’) game,” Nguyen said. “In addition, the constant experience of thirst due to the disease obviously creates a disadvantage for her to compete at the highest level in her sport.”

A micrograph of antibodies microarray produced by microengraving. The different colors represent two different antibodies and a combination of those antibodies.

Nguyen, who joined the college’s faculty in July after completing a Ph.D. and postdoctoral work at UF in the Colleges of Medicine and Dentistry, examines the genetics that contribute to susceptibility to Sjogren’s syndrome. He is currently studying a group of immune cells that have been shown to cause damage to the salivary glands. To profile these cells, Nguyen uses an innovative technology called microengraving.

“This technology uses microchips that allow us to identify thousands of individual cells, and at the same time characterize the biological and immunological function of these cells,” Nguyen said. “As a result, we have devised several gene therapy approaches to suppress this cell population in animal models. We have obtained stunning and promising data that I think will be beneficial in human patients.”

In close collaboration with Drs. Carol Stewart and Indraneel Bhattacharyya from the College of Dentistry and Drs. Wesley Reeves and Yi Li from the College of Medicine, Nguyen looks at correlations between the animal models and humans to determine if it is possible to translate the gene therapy approach to human patients.

“We haven’t gotten there yet, but hopefully we will soon,” Nguyen said, adding that one intriguing aspect of Sjogren’s syndrome is that is has never been studied in animals.

“From conversing with one of our pathologists, Dr. Pam Ginn, I learned that certain breeds of dogs come down with keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or dry eyes, and that necropsy has revealed immune cells in the salivary glands,” Nguyen said.

“Clearly, these animals manifest a certain phenotype of the disease, but whether it is Sjogren’s syndrome-related or not requires more comprehensive research, which I find to be quite exciting.”

Although he called Williams’ situation “highly unfortunate,” Nguyen said he applauds her courage to come forward with her diagnosis.

“I believe her courage is creating a widespread awareness on the part of the general population to obtain routine check-ups,” Nguyen said. “Early detection with the appropriate intervention can slow down the deterioration of the glands.”

On the lighter side, he added his siblings and mother, who also play tennis on occasion, finally understand the research he has been doing at UF for the last eight years.