Research: how to beat PsA without beating up the immune system

| Steve Bieler

Who are the scientists receiving our grants? What inspires their research into psoriatic disease? In this series we profile some of the researchers who are leading the charge to find new treatments and, we hope, a cure. 

Nisarg Shah spent a decade in Boston earning his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and doing his post-doctoral work at Harvard University.

Shah now runs his own lab as an assistant professor in the Department of NanoEngineering, Jacobs School of Engineering, at the University of California, San Diego.

Shah, who is originally from India, received an NPF Bridge Grant for a project called “Engineering Immune Tolerance in Psoriatic Arthritis.” 

SB: When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?
NS: There wasn’t a single moment when I decided. It’s more that I had fantastic teachers from middle school on who mentored and inspired me. Justin Scot Hanes, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Nanomedicine and a professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, convinced me to get my Ph.D. 

SB: What led you to choose the field of psoriatic disease?
NS: I’m a chemical engineer by training. I’ve always been interested in using engineering principles to treat diseases that currently have no cure, like autoimmune diseases. In my postdoc work, I focused on a specific aspect of the immune system – how T-cells develop following a bone-marrow transplant. It usually takes one to two years for T-cells to fully develop. I wanted to induce the growth of new T-cells using nanotech-based therapies.

An example of this is developing biomaterials to enhance the function of cells already in the body. I want to know how we can design materials that can act on these cells and suppress the cells that are causing the disease.

With psoriatic arthritis, my interests in the immune system and musculoskeletal diseases come together.

SB: How would you explain your current research to a child?
NS: Psoriatic arthritis is an example where certain types of cells contribute to the disease. Like T-cells. T-cells help us fight off infections and keep other cells in check. They help to keep us alive. But in certain scenarios, T-cells are activated when they shouldn’t be, as in PsA. 

Some current therapies for PsA lower the effectiveness of the entire immune system. My work is about learning how we can deliver specific molecules to the points where PsA exists and regulate T-cells without compromising the entire immune system.

SB: How do you unwind at the end of the day?
NS: In Boston I became a runner. Now I run as much as I can. I run in half-marathons. Running is also good for thinking about new experiments in the lab and new questions. 

The San Diego weather is a big change after Boston. It’s nice not to have to wear four or five layers.

SB: What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?
NS: I still see myself in technology, say in manufacturing. I would want to make something such as biological drugs at a large scale. If I weren’t a scientist, I still see myself as helping in some way.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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Other stories in our researcher series: 


Driving discovery, creating community

For more than 50 years, we’ve been driving efforts to cure psoriatic disease and improve the lives of those affected. But there’s still plenty to do! Learn how you can help our advocacy team shape the laws and policies that affect people with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis – in your state and across the country. Help us raise funds to support research by joining Team NPF, where you can walk, run, cycle, play bingo or create your own fundraising event. If you or someone you love needs free, personalized support for living a healthier life with psoriatic disease, contact our Patient Navigation Center. And keep the National Psoriasis Foundation going strong by making a donation today. Together, we will find a cure.

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