When he crossed the Red River to play football at Oklahoma’s Langston University a year ago, James Harding, Jr., expected to meet his most formidable foes on the playing field. Unfortunately, his toughest opponents were lurking inside his own body—diseases that would rob him of a promising athletic career and change every day of his life forever. Luckily, Harding’s move to Oklahoma put him in just the right place to deal with the challenges that lay ahead.
Last August, a routine run around the practice field left Harding, 19, unusually sore, his muscles aching from head to toe. On that day, his normal first-place position in the pack dropped to dead last. He soon collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. There, James learned that he suffered from an assortment of autoimmune diseases—conditions in which the body’s immune system attacks itself instead of fighting infections and diseases.
Lupus. Polymyositis. Sjogren’s syndrome. Harding’s test results pinpointed all three in his young system, and it soon became clear that his future would depend more on brains than brawn.
“Now I want to do whatever I can for people with lupus and other autoimmune diseases,” Harding said. “I played sports all my life until I was diagnosed, and I believe that hard work breeds success. Now I’ll use my mental gifts to help improve the lives of others.”
Lupus can affect any part of the body and can be life-threatening. The disease, which has no known cure, occurs in about 31 out of every 100,000 people and affects women nine times more than men. It can affect multiple organs, the nervous system, lungs, heart and kidneys, as well as the joints and the skin. There is no cure, and often the treatments carry serious side effects.
Harding learned that one of the top autoimmune disease research teams in the world happened to be just down the road at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City. In fact, OMRF’s lupus researchers led an international consortium that identified more than 13 new genes associated with lupus earlier this year. Harding immediately enrolled in a research study there, where he learned more about his illness and was able to receive medical care.
On a routine visit to the clinic at OMRF, Harding heard about a summer scholarship program where college students could participate in hands-on research for 8 weeks. He jumped at the chance to apply and was accepted as a 2008 OMRF Presidential Scholar. Since May, Harding has worked in OMRF’s arthritis and immunology research program studying the genetics of men who are suspected of having more than one X chromosome and how many of them develop lupus.
“This has been everything I hoped for and then some,” Harding said. “I’m doing graduate-level work right now, so I’ll be well ahead in school. It has also given me an idea of what it takes to make it in the research field. My dream is to go to medical school and then start my own search for a solution to lupus and diseases like it.”
As a Presidential Scholar, Harding will complete a research project, write a scientific paper and present his findings in a formal seminar to OMRF scientific staff. The scholarship also includes a stipend and housing.
A 2007 graduate of Lancaster, Tex., High School, Harding carried a 3.8 grade point average and was a member of his school’s national quiz bowl team. He completed more than 100 hours of community service each semester and was recruited to Langston as both an athlete and as a member of the school’s E.P. McCabe Honors Program. His parents are Tonia D. and James W. Harding, Sr., of Lancaster.
The Presidential scholars work alongside OMRF’s Sir Alexander Fleming Scholars, a program which has served as a model for similar programs nationwide since its creation in 1956. Two of OMRF’s faculty members, Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., and Rodger McEver, M.D., got their start as Fleming Scholars.
OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D., sees the programs as a two-way benefit. “Granted, these students learn a lot here and are exposed to new concepts, state-of-the-art laboratories and a real-life work environment. But we learn from them, too. They bring enthusiasm and fresh perspectives into OMRF’s labs and keep us as scientists on our toes. And it’s clear through what we see in these young people that the future for research is bright.”
OMRF (omrf.org) is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and developing more effective treatments for human disease. Its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease.