The Erna Baird Memorial Grant

Heightening Awareness for Autoimmune Disease

The Erna Baird Memorial Grant (EBMG) has enabled groundbreaking biomedical research into Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA), formerly known as Wegener’s, a rare, debilitating and often fatal autoimmune disease. Established by Esther Baird in 2012 in honour of her mother Erna Baird – beloved wife, mother and grandmother who succumbed to the disease on June 6, 2011 – the Grant supports research led by Dr. Kathy Siminovitch, a geneticist and leader in the field of autoimmune disease at the University Health Network/Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

Autoimmune disease is a major health threat that is increasing in prevalence worldwide. It develops when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. In GPA, cells of the immune system attack blood vessels causing inflammation, injury and eventually dysfunction of the lungs, kidneys and other organ systems. GPA can be challenging to diagnose and treat. Like all autoimmune disease, it cannot be prevented or cured, and may lead to early death. There is an urgent need for better awareness and research to improve treatment options and health outcomes for patients.

A Legacy of Discovery

Since its founding, the EBMG has established a tradition of discovery that is revolutionizing our understanding of GPA, and bringing us ever closer to more effective treatments. Scientific discovery made possible by the Grant has been published in high-impact medical journals such as Arthritis & Rheumatology, and shared with the global scientific community. Highlights of critical advances made possible by the EBMG include: 

  • Important Genetic Discoveries: After analyzing the genetic samples of several thousand GPA patients from across Canada and the USA, 5 genes were identified by Dr. Siminovitch that play critical roles in predisposing individuals to GPA. As part of this effort, the EBMG would like to thank Vasculitis Foundation Canada and its dedicated volunteers for encouraging hundreds of Canadians to contribute their DNA samples for genetic analysis.

  • Global Scientific Collaborations: A worldwide network of scientists was established to push the field further and faster to achieve benefits for patients. These include collaborations with Dr. Peter Merkel at the University of Pennsylvania to define the genetic factors that underlie GPA; and with the Yonsei University College of Medicine in South Korea, to identify new molecular pathways that cause inflammation in people living with GPA, and that represent potential new targets for treatment.

  • Understanding the Immune System’s Role: Dr. Siminovitch and Dr. Christian Pagnoux at Mount Sinai Hospital are developing a novel approach to characterize how the immune system of each GPA patient functions and changes over time as the disease progresses. This new technique will be applied to understand how different factors influence the immune system in GPA, and to identify new targets to help prevent and treat the disease.

Exciting Advances Toward Personalized Medicine

By linking powerful genetic data with blood and tissue samples from patients, research is now being conducted to see whether molecular changes (biomarkers) can be detected in a patient’s blood before they experience the symptoms of GPA. These data will be used to identify immune cells that may be involved in the disease. If healthcare providers could intervene before a patient experiences symptoms of GPA, then they may be able to diminish the severity of, or eliminate entirely, their symptoms and help them to stay as healthy as possible. 

At the end of 2018, Dr. Siminovitch and her colleagues showed that profiling selected white blood cells such as B cells shows great promise in monitoring of GPA patients. In the future, immunological tests such as these may enable scientists to apply personalized medicine strategies to GPA by predicting whether a treatment will help a specific patient.

It is likely that the causes of immune dysfunction in GPA conditions overlap with other autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and therefore research developments supported by the EBMG could potentially benefit patients suffering from other autoimmune disease.

To support the Erna Baird Memorial Grant, please click here or contact Josh Lai at 416-340-5204, or send your gift (made payable to “Erna Baird Memorial Grant”) to:

Attention: Josh Lai
Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation
190 Elizabeth Street, 5th Floor, Suite 5S-801
Toronto, ON  M5G 2C4