Dr. DiPaolo WAAD Interview

Dr. DiPaolo WAAD Interview

WAAD (World Autoimmune Arthritis Day), a yearly event put on by the International Foundation for Autoimmune Arthritis, a nonprofit that raises awareness, offers wellness alternatives, and shares resources for the autoimmune arthritis community, interviewed Richard DiPaolo, Ph.D. of St. Louis University School of Medicine about being an investigator in the autoimmune arthritis field. In the following interview, Dr. DiPaolo explains his research, the funding from the Arthritis National Research Foundation that got his career and lab started, and what the future holds for autoimmune arthritis treatments.

1. Let’s start off with a little about how you got into this line of research. Why rheumatology research? What intrigued you most about this field of study?
My interest in rheumatology research was an extension of my interest in immunology. Very early on in my research career I was fascinated by the immune system, by learning how it works, and by understanding how to use this knowledge to treat autoimmune diseases. I have been working to gain a better understanding of the immune system and trying to understand how the immune system can be regulated to stop various autoimmune diseases for almost 18 years.

2. We understand your lab is doing research in mouse models of human autoimmune diseases and collaborate on studies to better understand the immune system in individuals with some of the Autoimmune Arthritis diseases. Can you tell us a little bit about your research and how you predict it will benefit patients with these diseases?
A large part of my research program is dedicated to understanding why the immune system attacks different tissues in different autoimmune diseases, and developing new ways to stop it from doing so. We are trying to understand this on a cellular, molecular, and genetic level. For example, we are trying to induce cells in the immune system, called T cells, to suppress other immune cells that are causing disease. We are trying to teach one type of immune cell to stop other cells from attacking our body. To summarize, we are gaining a better understanding of WHY the immune system is attacking the body in various diseases such as Rheumatoid arthritis, and we hope to help develop new strategies to treat and possible cure different autoimmune diseases.

3. As patients, we hear constantly that our immune system is attacking itself and that causes our diseases. Can you explain the role the immune system plays in causing autoimmunity?
The immune system is a fascinating system that is designed to protect us from all types of pathogens (like viruses, bacteria, and parasites). Cells in the immune system go through an ‘education process’ when they are first developing, which is supposed to teach them to not attack self tissues. This education is pretty good, and prevents most people from developing autoimmune diseases such as RA and lupus. However, the education process is not perfect, and in a subset of individuals the immune system attacks self tissues and causes various autoimmune diseases. In patients with autoimmune diseases, the immune system is attacking self tissue because it has not been educated properly, and it is responding to self tissue as if it were a foreign substance. Therefore, the immune system is the primary cause for autoimmunity. An individual’s risk of developing autoimmunity is determined by a number of factors, such as their genetic makeup (DNA) and environmental factors. We need a better understanding of all of the factors that affect an individual’s risk of developing autoimmunity so that strategies to prevent and treat diseases can be developed.

4. Do you think it’s possible in the near future to develop strategies to prevent, treat, and cure people with autoimmune diseases?
In my opinion, my short answer is yes. I’m not exactly sure when, but the more we learn about the genetic and environmental factors that influence an individual’s risk of developing autoimmunity, the more likely it will be possible to identify at-risk individuals and try to prevent disease or manage disease at an earlier time point. The more we learn about how the immune system educates itself not to attack self tissues, the more we can try to develop new strategies to ‘re-educate’ the immune system in patients that have and autoimmune disease or that are at risk of developing autoimmunity. The more we learn about how the various ‘weapons’ the immune system is using to damage our bodies, the more medicines that can be developed to stop this damage.

5. Where do you see the world of rheumatology research heading? Is there anything new and exciting in researching the immune system that you can tell us about?
I think what is new and exciting is that through basic research we are gaining a better understanding of how the immune system works and what it is doing to damage the body in various autoimmune diseases. I think this will help us to guide clinical strategies to develop new medicines to not only treat ongoing disease, but hopefully to prevent disease in susceptible individuals and to cure disease in people with autoimmunity. This is the ultimate goal. In my opinion, we are on the right path. For example, a deeper understanding of the immune system lead to the development of new biologics that are now being used to treat patients with RA (Enbrel, Humira, Remicade, etc.). More biologics to block the immune system from damaging tissue are on the way.
However, we also have a long way to go if we hope to not only develop better treatments that slow the progression of disease, but to design new strategies to prevent and cure various autoimmune diseases. This type of research is in its early stages, and we have a way to go, but with the dedication of academic scientists, pharmaceutical companies, public and private organizations that support research, and doctors and patients, I’m confident that this goal can be achieved.

6. Why do you feel that the initial funding for “young” researchers is so important to their careers? What does it do for you that you would not be able to do otherwise?
My laboratory received two years of funding from the Arthritis National Research Foundation early in my career. Honestly, without this support my laboratory would not have had the necessary resources develop a program to try to develop new strategies to suppress joint inflammation. Some of the findings from that research were recently used to acquire additional funding from the National Institutes of Health that will us to work with collaborators and to continue our research on how to suppress joint inflammation. This initial investment from the ANRF has allowed my lab, and many other laboratories started by young investigators, to develop research programs to test new and innovative ideas that will bring us closer to our ultimate goals, to develop new ways to prevent, treat, and cure autoimmune diseases. Without this type of support, there would be fewer new and innovative ideas by young scientist wishing to enter this area of research

dipaolo At the Arthritis National Research Foundation we are working to share as much arthritis related information in an effort to make a difference by giving arthritis researchers, patients and collaborative partners a voice. Raising arthritis awareness and raising awareness about the need for more funds for research is critical in the fight to cure arthritis. Please leave a comment of a question for Dr. DiPaolo below and we will include it in our follow up interview for Arthritis Now!

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Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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