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July 9, 2008

After a Decade, Autoimmunity Day Still Promoting Awareness

Noel Rose has been researching autoimmune diseases for more than 50 years. In fact, his studies of thyroiditis are credited with ushering in the modern era of autoimmune disease research. Yet, even after decades of study, Rose believes that the public still does not fully understand or appreciate the impact of autoimmune disease.

“The autoimmune diseases are a big clinical problem that is overlooked, because we think of them individually rather than collectively,” said Rose, MD, PhD, who is a professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and directs the Autoimmune Disease Research Center.

Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s immune system attacks the body’s tissues or substances that normally are present in the body. There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases, which include seemingly unconnected illnesses such as type-1 diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.

Ten years ago, Rose and his colleagues started Autoimmunity Day as a way to raise awareness about autoimmune disease and foster collaboration with fellow researchers toiling in the field. This year the event was held at the Bloomberg School of Public Health on June 13. “There were a bunch of us here at Hopkins interested in autoimmune disease, but we are all scattered, usually in different departments. We were looking for a way to coordinate, communicate and collaborate among people with similar interests and ideas,” recalled Rose. “Over the years it’s gotten bigger and bigger.”

DeLisa Fairweather, PhD, a presenter at this year’s Autoimmunity Day, agrees that more education about autoimmune disease is needed. “Most people can’t name a single autoimmune disease. They don’t know what that is. But if you ask if they’ve heard of rheumatoid arthritis or lupus or diabetes, of course they’ve heard of those,” said Fairweather, assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

Much of Fairweather’s research focuses on differences in autoimmune disease prevalence between the sexes. Fairweather said that while the majority of autoimmune conditions occur more often in women, not all of them do. That includes inflammatory heart disease a major killer of young men.  Understanding the role of sex hormones could lead to better diagnosis and treatment, as well as answers to why most autoimmune diseases are more prevalent in women. Another important question is whether autoimmune disease prevalence is increasing. “Part of the problem with getting that data is that many of these diseases on their own occur in very small prevalence. There needs to be some way that we can assess autoimmune diseases globally as a whole. Those studies have not been done,” said Fairweather.

According to Rose, there are between 14 and 23.5 million people in the U.S. with autoimmune disease, about the same the number with heart disease and more than twice the number with cancer. “Autoimmune disease is among the three greatest causes of morbidity in the United States,” he said.--Tim Parsons

Public Affairs media contact for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or tmparson@jhsph.edu.