Each week, OMRF Chief Medical Officer Dr. Judith James opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from Adam Cohen, OMRF’s senior vice president & general counsel.
Since I joined the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation 21 (!) years ago, it seems autoimmune diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis have been on the rise. Given the work OMRF scientists do on these conditions, my perception could simply be a product of my surroundings. Or has there really been a surge?
Dr. James Prescribes
Well, according to a new study from the medical journal The Lancet, there’s been a significant increase in cases of autoimmune disease, conditions in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells.
Researchers looked at 22 million people in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2019. During that time, doctors diagnosed almost 1 million people with a new autoimmune disease. In total, 13% of women – and more than 7% of men – in the study had at least one autoimmune disease.
This prevalence represented an increase over previous numbers, with the largest uptick in cases of celiac disease and Sjögren’s disease, a condition marked by the destruction of the body’s moisture-producing glands that we study extensively here at OMRF.
These findings echo a 2020 study from scientists at the National Institutes of Health here in the U.S. At the NIH, researchers examined the blood of 14,000 volunteers during a 20-plus year period.
They found that the prevalence of the most common molecular biomarker for autoimmunity increased by more than 40% over that time. The study’s lead author called these results “concerning” and said they “may suggest a possible increase in future autoimmune disease.”
There’s no simple answer for what’s behind the growing numbers, although it’s likely a combination of things. Easier and earlier screening tests are probably a driver. For example, in celiac, where physicians once had to perform an intestinal biopsy, they now can use blood tests.
Another catalyst is probably increased awareness of these conditions. Environmental factors are likely also playing a role, with researchers looking at issues like infections with certain viruses, dietary components, and the microorganisms in our gut.
At OMRF, we are studying all of these aspects of autoimmune disease. If we can better understand what causes these conditions, we can better treat and even, we hope, prevent them.
Do you have a health query for Dr. James? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and your question may be answered in a future column!