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Teodora Staeva, PhD: Promoting Diversity in Lupus Research

Teodora Staeva, PhD, discusses how Lupus Research Alliance's is recognizing the critical contributions of underrepresented minority researchers through their Diversity in Lupus Research Award.

The Lupus Research Alliance (LRA), the largest non-governmental, non-profit funder of lupus research worldwide, recently announced their inaugural awards promoting diversity in lupus research. Rheumatology Network sat down with Teodora Staeva, PhD, Lupus Research Alliance’s Chief Scientific Officer, to discuss the critical contributions of underrepresented investigators, why it is crucial to award and recognize minority researchers, and the LRA’s plans for the future.

Lupus, a complex and sometimes fatal autoimmune disease, affects millions of people globally. More than 90% of patients diagnosed are women in their childbearing years (aged 15 – 45 years). Additionally, minorities populations, including African, South and Central American, and Native Americans, are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop lupus when compared with Americans with European ancestry. Lupus can attack the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, blood, skin, and joints of affected patients.

Specific award recipients highlighted below include Andrea Knight, MD, MSCE, affiliated with The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), who is studying ways to detect brain changes in high-risk adolescent patients with lupus to identify potential new treatments. Another recipient, Erika Moore, PhD, of the University of Florida, focused on how monocytes promote lupus-related vasculitis to understand how lupus and ancestry can affect monocyte functions and learn how ancestry influences blood vessel inflammation, especially for those who are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Rheumatology Network: From your perspective, why is it so crucial that the Lupus Research Alliance dedicates grants and awards that specifically recognize minority researchers and promotes diversity in lupus research?

Teodora Staeva, PhD: There are several major reasons why we wanted to do so. One of them is that lupus predominantly impacts women and people of color. As you may know, women are 9 times more likely to have lupus than men. And lupus is up to 3 times more prevalent in women of color than white women. And so given that significant overrepresentation of minority populations in our disease, it's critical to have the representations on all sides, both from participation in clinical trials, and also from the research perspective.

The other major reason is that studies have shown repeatedly that teams that are comprised of broad diverse stakeholders consistently outperforms homogeneous teams. And if we look at the research teams in general, not just in lupus, but in all fields of research, they are homogeneous and composed of a significant proportion of white scientists.

A recent National Science Foundation report had done a report on the scientific workforce, and established that the population such as Blacks, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Hispanic people make up just over 10% of the scientific workforce, when those populations comprise about 25% of the general population in our country. So clearly, there is significant disproportionate representation of those groups. And what we really need to do to be most successful in identifying effective therapies for people with lupus is to harness the power of cognitive diversity and address this dire problem of under-representation of specific racial and ethnic groups in biomedical research. And so that's why we felt it was important to create specifically dedicated programs that could foster the development of talented and promising young scientific workforce in lupus research.

RN: What are some of the critical contributions of underrepresented investigators that were recognized this year?

TS: Andrea Knight, MD, MSCE, studies cognitive development issues in adolescents with lupus. She has done important studies previously supported by the LRA and now we're continuing our support through this particular program where she is studying changes that occur within the brain using various imaging methods in the adolescent period and comparing those to changes that are happening in the immune system as detected in peripheral blood. She is trying to understand how the disease development in this age group impacts important issues such as depression and other mental issues in children and adolescents, which is significantly understudied. The hope for this study is that she may be able to identify certain biomarkers that would identify children who may be at particular risk for some of these cognitive manifestations of lupus and develop ways to counteract them or combat them.

Another investigator, Erika Moore, PhD, from the University of Florida, is trying to understand different ancestral differences within certain subsets of immune cells in individuals with lupus. Again, this is a unique opportunity to look, in more mechanistic aspects, at some of the contributions of lupus from different immune cells, particularly differences that are reflected in the ethnicities of the patients with the disease.

Some of the other awards that were given were for investigators studying specific type of T cells that are critically important in the disease process as well. These awards reflect the breadth of research that is happening within this community of scientists, an underrepresented minority of scientists, and it's very exciting to be able to support them.

RN: Speaking of the community, where do you see this field heading in the future?

TS: I think that with the various programs that we're establishing, and with the support that we and others are offering to this community, it could really flourish. I hope that 5 years from now there will be a lot more people of color who are participating, not only in basic research and making key discoveries, but also clinicians who are treating lupus patients, who are recruiting them for lupus clinical trials, and importantly, mentoring the next generation of both researchers and scientists. And the other impact of this would be that they will bring much larger participation from a underrepresented minorities in clinical trials so drugs can be developed that actually help the people that need the most. Because that's one of the challenges right now.

RN: Is there anything else that you would like our audience to know before we wrap up?

TS: In addition to providing financial support at different stages of the career development of underrepresented minorities in lupus, we're also creating different mentoring programs and training opportunities. We feel that providing financial support alone, while very important, is not sufficient. And so, we're trying to think more holistically and provide a comprehensive package of financial support, as well as other facilitative services, that could enable these brilliant scientists to flourish in their careers and their research that we're funding.