Will your autoimmune disease be cured?

| Written by sgammon
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More than 23 million Americans have an autoimmune disease. And although there are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, they all have three things in common:

  1. The immune system is attacking healthy cells
  2. The cause of the disease is unknown
  3. There is no cure

No cure. No cure. No cure. That’s not good news. Given that I have a 1 in 12 chance of getting an autoimmune disease in my lifetime (if you are a man your chance is 1 in 20), and those chances increase with every birthday (and mine is next month), I asked SBP experts in immunology what makes them hopeful that we are on the road to better treatments for these chronic, debilitating, and sometimes deadly diseases. Below are their forward-looking answers.


Carl Ware, Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center People with an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis share a common set of symptoms, for example, sore and stiff joints, but the root cause of the disease varies among different people. We used to guess, trial and error, whether a patient would respond to a particular drug. Now, with the power of genetics, we are finding new ways to accurately predict whether a drug will work or not. We can define certain types of gene signatures in the blood associated with different forms of inflammation that may help guide physicians to prescribe the correct medicines. The methods although not yet perfected, provide a clear direction forward for treatment.

A cure for autoimmune disease is much more challenging. Unlike cancer or infection, where the goal is to get rid of bad cells in the body, we must maintain an immune system. The key is to reduce inflammation by resetting the controls and help tissues and organs regenerate from the damage caused by inflammation. I’m optimistic that fundamental research of autoimmune diseases will ultimately lead us towards this goal.

Robert Rickert, Ph.D., Professor in the Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center Our understanding of the immune system and mechanisms of immunity has rapidly advanced in the last two decades.  Until the 90’s it was largely descriptive, but now we know much more about the specific cell types and molecular mechanisms employed by these immune cells to combat infection or, in autoimmune disease, how these processes may go awry and become disease-causing.  So…there is justification for optimism as there are now FDA-approved drugs (usually biologics) that can eliminate or modulate specific immune cells and the factors they produce to ameliorate autoimmune disease and its symptoms.

John Sedy, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor in the Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center Thanks to the government-led revolution in mapping the human genome, we now understand that people suffering from the same autoimmune disease can have immune systems broken in different ways. For example, in some people there are inflammatory proteins that are simply too active, while in others their immune system shut-off switches are broken. In my research we are taking advantage of these findings to make drugs that trigger some of these shut-off switches in several diseases to gain control of inflammation and prevent tissue damage. The promise of this research is the development of a variety of new therapies that are beginning to impact patient lives today.

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