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.


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. 



I notice that there is nothing said about Addison's disease. I've suffered with it for 9 years now, was told I only had approximately a week to live when diagnosed, and went through many, many Doctors before being diagnosed. I honestly just want to bring awareness to this disease. When Doctors aren't even aware, how can the public be?? The answer is right in front of my face this morning--a giant company such as Lilly, can surely shed some light on the disease, so people don't go undiagnosed. Thanks so much for your time!
Hi Lisa, we appreciate your questions. We have interesting late-stage research to continue exploring in rheumatoid arthritis, and we have submitted a new medicine to the FDA for approval. We’re committed to developing potential new medicines for the treatment of autoimmune conditions such as RA. Thanks again for your thoughts.
Thanks for your thoughts and question, Teresa. We have interesting phase 2 research to continue exploring, and that does involve lupus. We’re committed to developing potential new medicines for the treatment of autoimmune conditions, including this one, and we’ll apply learnings from our discovery to programs related to lupus.
I was treated wrongly for many years and still worry about ten years on Plaquenil.
Agreed that all sounds promising, but as the other comments convey, what about people suffering unbearably now? And, within their words, could the sense of being abandoned by those in research and healthcare delivery, simply for having been labeled "chronic", as painful as the condition, itself?
"changing patient expectations for their future." At 64 with psoriasis since age 12 & psoriatic arthritis now...pretty much all I expect is more pain which makes me NOT want a long life...of more & more pain.
I have RA. What knew research is being don't to find a cure? Is it true all these diseases are coming from our gut? How and who do you do research on? I've never been asked about research. Just curious. Would like to find a cure soon, not decades from now. I won't be here then.
I am a lupus patient and a member of the Lilly family. I know first hand how difficult it makes life. Is Lilly going to continue it's research on lupus? We need more something new that controls more of our symptoms than what is on the market now.