As a child in Iran, Dr. Fatemeh Khani Habibabadi was always interested in the world around her. Life and how the human body works fascinated her.
At university, she studied cell and molecular biology, life at its most basic level, then went even deeper for graduate studies, focusing on molecular genetics. It was here that her fascination with autoimmune disease piqued while exploring the molecular approach to studying multiple sclerosis.
“I worked on the interaction between noncoding RNAs and proteins that are known for their protective effects on multiple sclerosis patients,” Dr. Habibabadi says.
After completing her PhD, she wanted to pursue her research in autoimmune neurological disorders and applied to join the lab of Dr. Kevin O’Connor at Yale University School of Medicine. Dr. O’Connor leads the O'Connor Laboratory in the Department of Neurology and Department of Immunobiology.
The laboratory consists of a team of researchers – junior faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate students – investigating the role that the immune system plays in autoimmune neurological diseases.
“We are interested in broadly defining the mechanisms by which B cells – and the autoantibodies they produce – participate in the pathology of MG by identifying the specific type of B cells that produce MG autoantibodies, detailing how MG autoantibodies give rise to disease symptoms, and studying how patients respond to immune modifying therapies,” Dr. O’Connor says.
Dr. Khani joined this collaborative group of researchers in 2022. In the same year, she was awarded the Jackie McSpadden Post-Doctoral Fellowship. The MGFA awards this fellowship to promising MG researchers thanks to generous support from the McSpadden family.
Through the award, the MGFA and the McSpadden family hope to attract promising investigators to pursue MG research, expanding the number of researchers focused on this disease. Jackie McSpadden was a passionate, active volunteer in the MG community. When she passed away, her family created the fellowship to honor her legacy and improve the lives of people with MG and related neuromuscular junction disorders.
In the O’Connor Laboratory, Dr. Khani is focused on providing the framework for deciphering precise roles of autoantibodies in MG pathogenesis. Ultimately, this work aims to help patients by predicting treatment efficacy and disease progression.
“I’m working on three mechanisms of action related to AChR autoantibodies. I hope to determine if they have a role in identifying patients who will respond better to certain treatments or predict non-responders,” she says. “It’s important because patient response to treatment is very different in each person diagnosed with MG.”
While some people with AChR autoantibody-positive MG respond well to the newer medications now available, others do not find relief from their symptoms.
Dr. Khani is working on specimens from clinical trials investigating candidate treatments for MG, including complement inhibitors and B cell depletion therapies. Through this work, the team hopes to develop a better understanding of the disease, which could pave the way for new medications that might benefit a wider range of patients.
This research has uncovered the variability among patients in terms of both the quantity of AChR autoantibodies in the blood and, more importantly, how efficient they are at causing disease symptoms. Researchers have also learned that both the amount and efficiency of the AChR autoantibodies may change over time within individual patients.
Dr. Khani’s early findings demonstrate the complexity of MG and emphasize the significance of personalized medicine, which considers the characteristics of autoantibodies present in each patient. The initial findings from this research are expected to be published soon.
Private funding helps this exciting work take place.
“External funding is everything for a lab. The MGFA helped me continue my research on MG for three years, which is awesome. Without that, it might have been impossible for me to continue my research. I really appreciate that, and I’d like to thank the McSpadden family who made this generous donation.”
Learn more about the MGFA’s research agenda and grant funding opportunities. To learn more about the O’Connor Laboratory’s research on myasthenia gravis, visit their website.