How Dermatology Research Touches More Areas of Medicine

Aimee Payne, MD, PhD, a professor of Dermatology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was recently named president-elect of the Society for Investigative Dermatology (SID), the nation’s leading organization for skin research. Having been a member of the group since shortly after entering her dermatology residency in 2002, Payne noted that the “society is the group that raised me.”

While SID is dedicated to skin research—bringing together physicians and scientists in academics, government, and industry, as well as others pursuing a greater understanding of the body’s largest organ—many of the advancements in skin science can have relevance to much broader applications. 

“The study of dermatology can offer insights into cellular mechanisms and disease treatments for many other parts of the body,” said Payne.

Now, she is helping to chart a new strategic plan for the organization when her term begins next spring.

“Throughout my involvement with SID, I had opportunities to learn from peers and mentors and identify the important scientific questions left to be answered while fostering the next generation of skin researchers,” she said. “It’s an organization that inspires.”

Payne is not the only dermatology faculty member with a prominent national dermatology leadership position. Susan Taylor, MD, the Bernett L. Johnson, Jr., M.D. Professor in Dermatology and the vice chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the department, has been elected to serve as president of the American Academy of Dermatology from 2025-2026.

“Susan Taylor is an amazing colleague,” said Payne. “It’s rare to have such strong leaders and researchers as colleagues at one institution. The reason this has been possible is that Penn and our Dermatology department have allowed me to focus most of my professional time on research – it’s a conscious investment in us as faculty.”

Beyond the Skin

“If you’re looking to study a particular cell type from the human body, there is a good chance you can find it in the skin,” said Payne, calling skin a “gold mine for basic scientists.”

According to Payne, almost every variety of basic science relates to the skin: our skin has neurons, vascular cells, epithelial cells, immune cells, and others that play a role in things like cancer, aging, itch, pain, autoimmunity, and infection.

The breadth of cells is not the only benefit of focusing on the skin. The skin, and the cells that make it up, come into contact with a plethora of external microbes and forces that alter or influence the skin cells.

The skin also serves as an ideal testing ground compared to other organs in the body. Not only can medication be tested by simply applying it topically, but if biopsies are needed to test cells, it’s much easier to biopsy the skin than internal organs.

The Work in Payne’s Lab

Though much of the work in Payne’s lab involves the immune system—Payne also co-founded Cabaletta Bio, a biotech company which focuses on using that CAR-T approach to treat autoimmune conditions—her career began through the study of rare diseases. This included studying conditions like pemphigus vulgaris, an autoimmune disease where the immune system creates antibodies that attack skin-cell binding proteins. When those proteins are weakened, the skin is also weakened, and fluid collecting between layers of skin can cause blisters.

To do this, Payne re-engineered a method known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, developed at Penn by Carl June, MD, which has taken off for its revolution of cancer care.

“Our most recent research found that we could reengineer CAR T cells to target bad actor B cells responsible for the rare autoimmune disease MuSK-myasthenia gravis, which causes severe muscle weakness,” said Payne. “We call this technology chimeric autoantibody receptor (CAAR) T cell therapy. The work has led to a phase 1 clinical trial of MuSK CAAR T cells for MuSK myasthenia gravis.”

If proven safe and effective in mucosal pemphigus vulgaris and MuSK myasthenia gravis, Payne believes there are many autoimmune diseases that could be potentially treated with the same technique.

The Next Generation

Every past generation of doctors and researchers enters their respective field hungry for problem solving and innovation, and each new generation also finds new tools at their disposal.

Payne, who is the associate director of the Medical Scientist Training Program for students pursuing combined MD and PhD degrees at Penn, works with many young professionals at Penn in her lab, in the classroom, and through the Society for Investigative Dermatology. She has observed that young investigators today want to harness technology and big data to solve some of medicine’s most complex problems.

As she does for trainees at Penn, Payne intends to encourage researchers in the SID to follow their hunger for data and innovation in order to discover the next great breakthrough in dermatologic science.

“It’s an ideal time to train as a physician-scientist,” said Payne. “Over the last several decades, basic science has advanced to the point that we know many of the genes and cellular pathways that cause disease. In parallel, novel devices and technologies have developed that could potentially reverse the root cause of disease. It just takes one study to bridge the gap from basic science to therapy and then all of a sudden so many future therapies become possible.”

Similar advancements have occurred in clinical trials and epidemiology. “With advancements in electronic health records, we now have access to a wealth of information on patients’ demographics and past medical history. There are an infinite number of studies that can be performed to connect patients’ health histories with their risk for disease or treatment outcomes. We are no longer limited by the data but only by our ability to integrate the knowledge in a meaningful way.”

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