NEA Research Grants Recipients: Where are they now?


By Steve Nelson

Published On: Mar 23, 2022

Last Updated On: Mar 23, 2022

NEA-funded scientists are changing the future of eczema research. With the annual NEA Research Grant applications opening again in May, we connected with two previous recipients of the NEA Research Grant to get an update on their groundbreaking work.

Dr. Katrina Abuabara, associate professor of dermatology at UCSF

Dr. Katrina Abuabara, associate professor of dermatology at UCSF, received a NEA Research Grant in 2020 to study the causes of eczema in older adults. “We’ve found that adult-onset eczema is unexpectedly common,” she said. “We’ve also found increasingly high rates of eczema diagnoses among older adults.”

Eczema research often focuses on children, when symptoms of the disease usually first appear. Dr. Abuabara’s breakthrough findings may change how researchers approach the potential treatment landscape; if the disease prevalence is much higher in older Americans than previously understood, there may be opportunity for further treatment options and new standards of care for patients who have never lived with eczema until their late 50s or early 60s. “We have also identified associations between other organ systems like the heart and brain,” Dr. Abuabara said. “It’s possible some patients could benefit from new targeted treatments.”

With more Americans living longer per 2020 U.S. Census Data, Dr. Abuabara’s research has demonstrated the potential to reach a wider, potentially more vulnerable population. Indeed, the data generated by her 2020 NEA Research Grant has already led to a larger grant awarded by the National Institute of Health, enabling her to expand the scope and scale of her work.

Dr. Anna Di Nardo, PhD, professor of dermatology at UCSD

Dr. Anna Di Nardo, PhD, professor of dermatology at UCSD, received her first NEA Research Grant more than 20 years ago to study a protein-forming peptide called cathelicidin. “It helped me obtain my first NIH grant,” she said. “Now I am a principal investigator exploring new avenues for my lab’s research.”

The NEA Research Grants cover the full spectrum of a prospective recipient’s career: some scientists are still designing their research, while others use the funding to extend studies into new, previously unexplored areas. “Recently there has been a lot of attention to S1PRs,” Dr. Di Nardo said, citing a receptor that may interact with the body’s T-cells. “However, I realized that very little is known about S1PRs in the skin barrier, so we started to study them in the skin.”

Dr. Di Nardo explained how an individual receptor in the immune system could have significant implications for future eczema treatments. “We found that S1P receptors control how much the skin surface can retain water,” she said. “The skin surface that is affected by eczema losts its capacity to maintain water inside your skin. We have found a new key to control the water that leaves your skin and keep it more moist.”

Anyone with eczema will attest to the importance of moisturizing their skin, even without a deep knowledge of the microbiology that explains how or why it helps. Establishing the role that these S1P receptors play beneath the surface of the skin has led Dr. Di Nardo to “fill the gap of knowledge in the skin barrier,” and the more researchers know about the skin barrier the better equipped they are to discover new treatments more capable of protecting it.

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