A $15 million bequest from an Anne Arundel County woman who suffered from arthritis is serving as the springboard for new basic and clinical research efforts in immunology and rheumatic diseases at the Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland schools of medicine.
The Maryland chapter of the Arthritis Foundation -- the beneficiary of the endowment from Virginia Engalitcheff of Gibson Island -- yesterday made its first awards of $200,000 each to the city's two academic research centers and said there would be more multiyear grants for promising research.
Engalitcheff, who died last year, was a 15-year member and supporter of the Arthritis Foundation, the only non-profit health agency dedicated to finding the cause of and cure for arthritis.
"These are the largest single grants ever made by any chapter of the Arthritis Foundation," said Norine Walker, chairwoman of the Maryland chapter's board of directors who has had rheumatoid arthritis for 13 years.
"We hope these awards will make Baltimore a major city for research and breakthroughs on arthritis-related diseases -- the most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis," Walker said at a news briefing at Cross Keys Inn.
Each institution plans to match the grants and use the money to hire faculty members who are experts in their fields.
Dr. Barry S. Handwerger, director of the division of rheumatology at the UM Medical Center, said the hospital will try to lure Dr. Marc C. Hochberg from the Hopkins faculty.
Hochberg is a rheumatologist with expertise in the clinical aspects of arthritis and muscular-skeletal diseases, including osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, gout and lupus.
Dr. Douglas T. Fearon, director of molecular biology and genetics at Hopkins, said the grant and matching funds will enable Hopkins to recruit Dr. Mark Schlissel.
Schlissel will carry out research on the genetic basis of antibody formation. These studies will have a role in preventing the occurrence of auto-antibodies, which cause several forms of arthritis.
More than 660,000 Marylanders have arthritis, the nation's No. 1 crippling disease, said Walker.
"There are more than 100 different forms of arthritis and it is very important to realize how common this disease is," said Handwerger. "It's one that makes a lot of people suffer a long, long time. Most people with arthritis don't die of arthritis, they die of something else."
At both Hopkins and UM, much of the basic science research is not dealing with specific diseases, but with mechanisms involved in many rheumatic diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma, Fearon and Handwerger said.