Steve-Gordon-and-Callie-Triller-in-PeruIn April 2017, Steve Gordon and his daughter, Callie Triller, hiked to Machu Picchu in Peru. Seven months later, Steve started experiencing severe joint pain and learned he had rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It’s been a long journey to find a medication that gets him back to hiking, skiing and other activities.

“I’ve tried five medications in about two years,” Steve says. “Some drugs cost over $50,000 a year, so it's very frustrating when they don’t work.”

Aside from Callie and one sister, Steve’s three siblings and three children all have autoimmune diseases.

“Whenever I have an unexplained illness or pain, I fear that it’s the start of an autoimmune disease,” Callie says. “And I have the same worries when my son gets sick.”

Eddie James, PhD, is working to help people like Steve and Callie. Scientists can predict who will get RA: People with certain markers in their blood and who have a family member with RA. But they can’t predict when — some people will get it in their 20s while others won’t until their 60s. 

Dr. James and BRI President Jane Buckner, MD, led a study examining T cells involved in RA and discovered a key indicator to predict the disease. Dr. James recently presented this research at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting. 

“This research will help us treat RA earlier, before it progresses, and help us find ways to prevent it,” Dr. James says. 

Key Cell Changes

Eddie-James-PhD-smiling-in-labThis project was part of the Targeting Immune Responses for the Prevention of Rheumatoid Arthritis (TIP-RA) study, which monitored over 100 patients’ immune systems for three years.

Researchers studied samples from people who had antibodies for RA — meaning they had a nearly 100 percent chance of developing the disease. Some participants developed RA during the study, and scientists pinpointed key cell changes among those participants.  

Researchers believe that screening patients for these cell changes could help doctors know when RA will start, opening the door to improving treatments. 

“Knowing that someone will develop RA soon after these changes means we can start treating them when medicines are most effective,” Dr. James says.

Aiming to Prevent RA

BRI’s researchers’ next steps include testing medicines that could prevent or delay RA.

Autoimmune disease research at BRI has inspired Steve to donate to our biorepositories — and he’s recruited his family to donate too.

“BRI is trying to create better, more individualized treatments, and I’m happy to give a simple blood donation to support that,” Steve says.

Callie’s son Noah turned one in 2019, and BRI’s work gives their family hope for the future.

“If scientists could determine if Noah was at risk and treat him preventively, that would be incredible,” Callie says. “BRI’s progress makes me think that he may never have to worry about autoimmune disease.”

Originally published in BRING IT ON Newsletter - Winter 2020

Fighting Diseases

December 10, 2019

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