The department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy G. Thompson recently announced the release of a comprehensive research plan from HHS’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fight autoimmune diseases, a collection of disorders including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis that affect an estimated 14 to 22 million Americans. The plan will foster research to identify genetic, environmental and infectious causes of autoimmune diseases and to develop new treatments and prevention strategies.
“Each year, millions of Americans suffer pain, illness and even death as a result of multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases,” Secretary Thompson said. “This new research plan will guide our efforts to understand the causes of these diseases and how we can better treat and prevent them to improve people’s lives.”
The Autoimmune Diseases Research Plan provides specific recommendations on future research directions and demonstrates the commitment of HHS to continue a robust program of autoimmune disease research. The plan also calls for educating the medical community and the public about autoimmune diseases.
“This plan highlights many unprecedented opportunities to increase our understanding of autoimmune diseases at the population, individual and molecular levels, with a conceptual focus on the underlying mechanisms shared among many autoimmune diseases,” said Elias Zerhouni, M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health. “This strategy should ultimately allow the translation of new knowledge into more effective treatments and prevention strategies.”
Autoimmune diseases result when the immune system attacks the body’s own organs, tissues and cells. Physicians and scientists have identified more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. Some are well known, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and systemic lupus; others are less familiar, such as autoimmune hepatitis, Sjögren’s syndrome and pemphigus.
“The social and financial burdens imposed by these chronic, debilitating diseases include poor quality of life, high health care costs and substantial loss of productivity,” said Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “In addition, the majority of autoimmune diseases disproportionately affect women, and the NIH is committed to addressing this health disparity.”
The plan was created at the request of Congress as part of the Children’s Health Act of 2000, and it was prepared by the NIH Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Committee, a body of government and outside experts under the direction of NIAID. This committee, established in 1998, facilitates collaboration among the NIH institutes, other federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, and private organizations. In developing the plan, the committee analyzed the existing NIH research program and sought the advice of non-federal scientists.
Highlights of the plan include the following.
The Burden of Autoimmune Diseases: Studies will more accurately determine the incidence, prevalence and severity of autoimmune diseases in the United States as well as the number of deaths that result from these disorders.
Cause of Autoimmune Diseases: The plan calls for researchers to identify the genetic and environmental factors that lead to autoimmune diseases and to investigate the relationship between them. Other studies will examine more closely what happens to the immune system during autoimmune diseases. To facilitate this research, new animal models of autoimmune disorders will be created.
Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention: The plan calls for developing centralized, broad-based clinical research centers with the capacity to test potential new treatments and diagnostics with multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary clinical studies. The plan encourages public-private partnerships in creating new treatments. Scientists are also challenged to improve the screening processes that identify at-risk individuals.
Training, Education and Information: According to the plan, new training and career opportunities must be available to scientists considering a career in autoimmune disease research. For physicians, continuing medical education materials on autoimmune diseases should be created to update them on the latest research advances. For the general public, autoimmune disease information will be made available via the internet and ongoing public education campaigns.