March 31, 2024

Office of Autoimmune Disease Research Director Shares What’s Ahead for Autoimmune Disease Innovation

During the event, Director of OADR Victoria Shanmugam, MBBS, MRCP, FACR, CCD shares updated from the office, including takeaways from the report, Enhancing NIH Research on Autoimmune Disease.

By Claire Garretson, Communications Intern 

Autoimmune and immune-mediated diseases and conditions encompass many different conditions that result from an overactive immune system, which starts to attack its own healthy cells instead of fighting infection and preventing disease. This manifests in a variety of chronic conditions that affect about 8% of the United States population. The burden of autoimmune disease disproportionately affects women, who make up 80% of the individuals currently living with autoimmune diseases. There are presently no cures for autoimmune diseases; existing treatments focus on mitigating disease impact, slowing progression, or preventing development in populations with identified autoimmune risk factors. Although several of the most well-known autoimmune diseases include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriatic arthritis, and celiac disease, the Office of Autoimmune Disease Research (OADR) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research on Women’s Health examines as many as 144 different autoimmune diseases in its work.

Sharing her insights on autoimmune disease research and OADR’s role in tackling them, Victoria Shanmugam, MBBS, MRCP, FACR, CCD, Director of the OADR, presented at the Society for Women’s Health Research’s (SWHR) March 2024 Policy Advisory Council meeting. OADR was established in 2023 to accelerate research progress in the field. Dr. Shanmugam discussed multiple significant studies into autoimmunity underway at the Office. “We have not yet fully mapped or understood the immune system, the immunome, and how it changes over life,” Dr. Shanmugam explained, outlining the challenges and unanswered questions that continue to compel autoimmune research.

Currently, OADR is guided by several key goals that were identified by Congress upon the Office’s establishment:

OADR is already seeking to fulfill these key goals through several paths.

First, among OADR’s priorities is to focus on bringing together the many existing efforts to develop registries for autoimmune disease research into a more accessible and streamlined repository. “We have not fully harmonized data,” Dr. Shanmugam said, expressing the potential for more collaboration and research through development of a publicly accessible central repository.

The opportunities in autoimmune disease research, including their connections to other medical conditions, as well as potential prevention and treatment opportunities, are vast. Areas of inquiry range from exploring how environmental exposures occur to mapping the unique experiences of individuals living with autoimmune diseases. According to a recent study done in the UK, people with autoimmune conditions are more likely to also experience cardiovascular diseases. Another study found that the risk for autoimmune disease itself is correlated with higher numbers of X chromosomes, explaining why women are four times more likely to be living with autoimmunity issues. Dr. Shanmugam also shared research on a promising breakthrough in preventing the development of type 1 diabetes, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2019. The effectiveness of this now U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved preventative treatment inspired a new approach to treating conditions across the autoimmune community, as other ongoing studies attempt to replicate this result in the context of other autoimmune conditions.

Each new study into autoimmune diseases and conditions can help us better understand how and why these conditions evolve over a lifetime.

OADR also supports the efforts of medical professionals pursuing autoimmune research through its intramural and extramural funding awards focusing on projects furthering knowledge about autoimmune diseases. One of the groups that OADR supports is the Exposome in Autoimmune Diseases Collaborating Teams (EXACT), which will develop into a network of researchers focusing on how environmental exposures influence autoimmune diseases through coordinated studies and future research projects. Supporting the continuation of autoimmune research and fostering collaboration is central to the mission of OADR. Additionally, OADR hosts informative sessions throughout the year to provide progress updates and news on its latest research dissemination, all of which can be found on the Office’s website.

While each autoimmune disease impacts a person’s life differently, autoimmune research is united it its efforts to map the development, progression, and presentation of different autoimmune diseases across populations; to understand how these conditions evolve over a lifetime; to search for innovative treatments and preventions; and ultimately to improve patient well-being across the lifespan.

For more information on autoimmune disease research and support, please visit: