Paul Panipinto researches rheumatology, a branch of medicine which focuses on the management of inflammation in the bones, joints, and internal organs. After receiving his bachelor’s from the University of Washington, he followed his long-time mentor Pharmaceutical Sciences Professor Salah Ahmed to Washington State University to continue their work on researching the inner workings of rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating autoimmune disease which affects 1.3 million people in the U.S.
Panipinto was recently named a 2023 Fellow for the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) where he and a select group of scientists across the country will influence policy for the development of new drug therapies for diseases. Panipinto has undergone intense training on policy briefs in the last four months in preparation to meet with lawmakers this month. While at the capitol, he will meet with congress people to talk about funding for research, policy for animal experiments, and FDA procedures. All National Institutes of Health research funding ultimately gets decided by Congress. The research then guides pharmaceutical companies to create new drug therapies. Panipinto shares more about his experience at WSU and future plans as a PhD candidate.
What are you interested in?
Rheumatology. Our lab is the rheumatology lab and deals with autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, and these are things that many people have. Something like 4 percent of people have arthritis for example. There’s a large percentage of people who have lupus and they are debilitating diseases. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you’re going to lose the ability to basically enjoy life in any kind of physical way. There’s no cure for most of these diseases and there’s a lot of pain associated with them such as bone degradation, deformities, and things like that. There’s not a whole lot of access for care or therapy between here and Michigan. All of those states don’t have practicing rheumatologists or research going on for the most part so it’s definitely important for Spokane and the Midwest.
How did you become interested in rheumatology?
When I graduated with my bachelor’s from the University of Washington I knew I wanted to do something with people, and pain is the number one complaint for people with medical problems. People with rheumatoid arthritis for example, they know they are going to lose the ability to do physical activities. But the bigger issue is pain and pain management and there hasn’t been a lot of progress as far as curing that. There’s a lot of therapies that help it in the short term, but a lot of those therapies cause cancer, so they aren’t ideal, so we need new and better options.
Which therapies cause cancer?
Anything that’s an immune modulator. So anything that reduces cytokine trafficking in your system. Cytokines are molecules that your cells produce that cause inflammation and things like that. When we suppress things like interleukin-1 Beta, which is one the more proinflammatory cytokines or interleukin-6 or the JAK/STAT pathway, you suppress your immune system and you leave it vulnerable because it can’t respond to problems as well. There’s opportunistic infections so things like herpes are 10 percent higher for patients with autoimmune disease that are on these drugs. And long-term you’re probably going to end up getting cancer.
What are some specific policies that ASPET will try to educate legislatures about?
A few of the major areas of interest are always animal research, medical access for patients, education and appropriations. I’d like to focus on the last two – education is critical to how patients interact with their own health. We saw a lot of issues there during the pandemic with misinformation and misunderstood information. It really hurt the public dialogue that we weren’t all able to talk at the same level. Appropriations is just as important too. The house adopted a CUTGO resolution in their rules this year. It requires every dollar spent to be offset by a dollar cut from something else. While it’s important to be frugal with public money researching cures for diseases isn’t something that should be set aside. In 2012 when congress pushed through sequestration it cut all programs by 20 percent. The National Institutes of Health ended up funding 640 fewer grants than the year before and all the existing grants were cut by 5 percent. But these things they’re cutting are cures for cancer, arthritis, infectious disease- problems we need to solve.
What’s the ultimate life goal?
This fellowship is part of what I want to do. I just want a career that helps people. I spent 17 years working in grocery stores, and my step-father came down with cancer and it was a lot of examining of life goals. So I got out of that and went back to school and got my PhD and just wanted to help people. Science policy is a good way to do it because you set the policies that affect millions of people. I’m also looking at industry internships and academia.
What has been the most rewarding experience as a PhD student at WSU?
It’s kind of hard to narrow it down to any one thing. A lot of the work is difficult and experiments often fail so the minutes of the day aren’t always great, but I’m always learning and have never felt so invested in my own growth. I’ve been fortunate that I get to learn and do a lot of the things I’ve wanted to during my time here. I’m close to graduation and in every job interview I’ve had they’re always very pleased with my CV and experience. It’s very cool to see the rough parts pay off.