OMRF physician-researcher Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., works with a lupus patient.

Whether your Mother’s Day tradition is serving breakfast in bed, treating her to a spa day, or heading to a movie, the most important part is spending time with mom.
But while we celebrate mothers, scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation are working to protect them. Specifically, they’re trying to stop autoimmune diseases, conditions which disproportionately strike women.
Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are some of the disorders in which the immune system becomes unbalanced and attacks the body. All told, the diseases affect an estimated 25 million Americans.
“Almost all of the 80-plus autoimmune diseases we know are more common in women than men,” said OMRF immunologist Hal Scofield, M.D. “For example, Sjögren’s syndrome makes the body attack its own moisture-producing glands, and it occurs in women at a 9-to-1 ratio over men. Recent studies we’ve done may offer clues as to why it is so female-slanted.”
In a 2016 study, Scofield and his research team found that the diseases may not actually be based on gender—but on how many X chromosomes a person has. “When it comes to understanding the gender bias of autoimmune diseases, X might literally mark the spot,” Scofield said.
Chromosomes determine the biggest difference between males and females genetically. Each person typically has one pair of sex chromosomes per cell. Females have two X chromosomes, while males have one X and one Y.
Scofield said this avenue of research could lead to the discovery of pathways that could be more effectively treated by drugs to reduce the risk of developing these diseases or helping to better manage symptoms.
One way OMRF is already actively helping protect women from autoimmune disease is with the SMILE trial, the world’s first lupus prevention study.
The study launched late last year and is still actively recruiting new participants.
In the trial, researchers seek to identify individuals at high risk for developing lupus and treat them with an immune-modifying medication before they ever transition into the disease. The goal is to delay the onset of lupus, lessen its symptoms and potentially prevent it altogether.
“As a physician, I find this trial incredibly important because I have seen the damage and destruction that happens with lupus,” said OMRF Vice President of Clinical Affairs Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., who launched the project.
James said the ultimate goal is to prevent the disease from ever happening. But even if an individual still transitions into lupus, early detection and getting treatment started before the damage is done can mitigate the potential damage and improve outcomes.
“I think we have opened the door to understanding why there’s a sex bias or gender bias in autoimmunity,” said Scofield. “It could lead to new targeted therapies for autoimmune diseases that could result in longer lives for our sisters, wives, daughters and, of course, our mothers.”