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A Q&A on Autoimmune Disease Research

TomBumolAutoimmune diseases impact approximately 24 million people in the U.S., and that number keeps growing. These include psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and more. With March being Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, I caught up with Tom Bumol, Ph.D., senior vice president of biotechnology and immunology research at Lilly. He sheds some light on the challenges in the field and explained how Lilly is following the science to discover and develop medicines for these hard-to-diagnose conditions.

What inspires you to study autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases impact a large portion of the U.S. population – nearly 8 percent of Americans are living with one of the 80-plus conditions, and that statistic continues to rise. It hits close to home, too, as my wife has an autoimmune disease. Seeing what she experiences on a daily basis, I want to make life better for her and for generations to come. I’m honored to dedicate my work to finding therapies that can help those living with these chronic conditions.

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What are some of the challenging aspects of autoimmune disease research?

Autoimmune diseases are quite complex, making them challenging to unravel and understand! We are working to break down the diseases into pieces that are approachable and easier to understand. These are some challenging aspects of autoimmune diseases:

  • Most of the conditions are chronic and often difficult to diagnose. It can take nearly five years for a proper diagnosis sometimes.
  • Genetic diversity. We are just beginning to understand why certain populations, such as women and minority groups, are affected and predisposed differently.

Fortunately, we’ve made tremendous strides in advancing the science during the past few years for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. As an industry, though, we’re still trying to discover and develop effective therapies for diseases such as lupus.

What is Lilly’s approach to discovery in autoimmune disease?

Autoimmune disease research is a priority for us at Lilly. We are currently studying a variety of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis and ulcerative colitis. With the population aging, the incidence of these diseases is growing because of better diagnostics and longer life expectancy. We’re determined to provide patients with disease-modifying medications that are quite different from current therapies – changing patient expectations for their  future.

What I find exciting about research in this space is that we can apply methods that have proven to work to new problems. As a molecular biologist and immunologist, I believe we're just scratching the surface of what's possible, but we can use biotechnology and immunological knowledge we’ve acquired in discovery and development time and time again. 

What do you envision the future of autoimmune disease research to be?

In the next few decades, I believe we will begin to identify the risk factors for certain types of diseases. We'll use this knowledge to study patients earlier in the progression of their disorders and hopefully learn to intervene before significant damage will occur to their bodies. Ideally, a tailored approach will emerge for patients on how we will ensure great outcomes with our therapies. 

Ultimately, it’s going to be a long research journey. We're making progress and learning more and more each day. Cracking the code for some conditions will require dedicated research and investment in new talent and technology for decades to come.