Spring 2019

Shining a Light on Sjögren’s

For two decades, Ilias Alevizos, D98, has examined a research gap on the autoimmune disease: the mouth.

By Monica Jimenez

It was love at first sight for Ilias Alevizos, D98, and the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. “There was so much nice energy, great classmates, fantastic teachers,” said Alevizos, who grew up in Greece. He enjoyed working in the pathology lab during his second year and was inspired by the school’s research into Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes dry mouth and other symptoms. A career in research, including some twelve years at the National Institutes of Health, and significant breakthrough toward the cause of the disease, followed.

One of Alevizos’s mentors and role models was Athena Papas, J66, now head of the school’s Division of Oral Medicine, as well as Distinguished Professor of Diagnostic Sciences and Erling Johansen Professor of Dental Research. “She was fulfilling her intellectual curiosity, moving forward treatments and therapies, and helping in ways not many people in the field could do,” he said. “She was doing exactly what I envisioned myself doing.”

He soon followed in Papas’s footsteps. After earning his degree from Tufts, Alevizos
completed his oral pathology residency and research degrees at Harvard, worked as a
postdoc at MIT and the University of Padua in Italy, and joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH), serving as principal investigator running clinical trials and a basic sciences lab. His mentor was Bruce Baum, D71, H17, a leading researcher, and now scientist emeritus, at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Alevizos’s topic of choice: Sjögren’s, but with a focus on the mouth. “Everyone was looking at the immune system and neglecting the main organ targeted by the disease,” said Alevizos. “There were not many specialists who understood the oral cavity and its related pathology.”

Alevizos, though, had previously studied the salivary function of epithelial cells and the altered molecular mechanisms that lead to xerostomia. He brought both medical expertise and an oral focus to the program he led at NIH, convening multidisciplinary teams as the director of the Sjögren’s clinic. “We saw that we could really contribute to the multidisciplinary study of the disease by providing expertise with biopsies and understanding the salivary gland function at a molecular level,” Alevizos said.

These teams conducted clinical research and published more than seventy scientific papers and book chapters about the disease. In particular, Alevizos and fellow researchers made large strides continuing a project started by Baum: experimenting with injecting a gene that codes for water production into the salivary gland, according to Papas. This could one day help restore saliva and alleviate dry mouth in Sjögren’s patients, she said. “He’s done fantastic work in basic sciences and presented at international meetings all over the world,” Papas said. “He’s quite the rising star, and I’m very proud of him.”

Alevizos completed a Ph.D. in medical physiology from the University of Athens in 2014. He is now the director of clinical programs at Viela Bio in Washington, D.C., where he works in clinical development and oversees trials for drugs in autoimmune diseases, but he’s keeping an eye on the disease he spent decades researching. “It used to be a neglected disease, but in a few years, I think we will have some new medications approved,” he said. “I’m really glad to see that things are changing and moving, and I hope to continue contributing.”

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