By Paula Burkes
Copyright © 2017, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Scientists don’t yet know why some 1.5 million Americans have lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own healthy tissues. Symptoms surface mostly in women ages 16 to 34 and vary from rashes and joint pain to deadly organ failure.
Physician-scientist Judith James — in her 23 years at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation — and colleagues have uncovered facts like a higher incidence of childhood viruses among lupus patients or how patients’ immune systems change following diagnosis.
But in the culmination of years of research, James is working with an Oklahoma City biotech startup — Progentec Diagnostics Inc. — to develop a test to predict, months in advance, when lupus patients will develop disease flares.
Simultaneously, she’s spearheading clinical trials in hopes of slowing, or preventing, at-risk patients from developing lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune disease. Sisters of patients are being invited to participate, along with others who have rogue autoantibodies and other symptoms. A control group will receive a placebo, while a second will be given low doses of Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial that, thanks in part to James’ research, has been shown to effectively treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, by turning down patients’ immune systems.
In a new role as vice president of clinical affairs, James will lead and manage all aspects of OMRF’s clinical operations, which include the Multiple Sclerosis and Rheumatology Centers of Excellence that treat thousands of patients with autoimmune diseases. Meanwhile, she continues to chair the Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Research Program, which employs 200, and to see patients in OMRF’s Rheumatology Center.
From her office at 825 NE 13, James, 50, sat down with The Oklahoman on Monday to talk about her life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: I’m a fifth-generation Oklahoman. I grew up in Pond Creek, 23 miles north of Enid, and graduated in a class of 23 from Pond Creek-Hunter High School. My dad’s family is from there and my mom’s is from Verden in southwestern Oklahoma, where my maternal grandmother still lives. I knew six of my eight great-grandparents. My parents met showing cattle in the Oklahoma Angus Association. They married soon after she graduated high school and he graduated OSU. My dad was a wheat farmer and had a real estate and auction company. My mom is a serial entrepreneur. She was a farmer’s wife, awesome mom, custom draperies seamstress, and for more than 27 years, has had Ruth’s Christian Bookstore in Enid. My sister, who’s three years younger and lives in Fairview, helps her with the business; there are now stores in Oklahoma City, Stillwater, Bartlesville and Muskogee. Our baby brother, whom my mother had between my junior and senior years of high school, pastors Center Church in Stillwater.
Q: What was your thing growing up?
A: I showed cattle in 4-H, was active in the Rainbow Masonic youth service organization, and was a cheerleader and volunteer candy striper. But mainly, my thing was music. My mother played the piano, and I started playing at age 6. I also play the organ. I grew up playing at the First Baptist Church in Pond Creek, accompanied my junior and high school choirs, and played for Tri-State. I was paid to play at funerals and weddings. When I turned 16, I asked my parents for a piano instead of car, and they bought me a Baby Grand, which I still have. I don’t know how they afforded it. My plan was to buy a baby blue Chevette with $1,400 I‘d saved, but my dad took that money and bought me a white Firebird instead. While I was in med school, I earned extra money playing for Trinity Baptist Church on NW 23 Street.
Q: When did you get turned on to science?
A: Early! When I was 4, I told my pediatrician that I wanted to be a doctor, and he wrote it in my chart. I — and many family members on my mom’s side — struggled with asthma. From age 8, I used a rescue inhaler and still carry one. Then in high school, I had a fabulous science teacher — Charlie Willie — who also sponsored the senior class, coached cheer, drove the school bus, and started our photography club. I chose to go to Oklahoma Baptist University, because their graduates then had the highest acceptance rates to med school. Valedictorian of my high school class, I went on a full academic scholarship and played piano in OBU’s University Chorale.
Q: How did you get your start at OMRF?
A: The summer before my senior year at OBU, I was an intern/Sir Alexander Fleming Scholar at OMRF. I finally was accepted the third time I applied after I, for a zoology class, conducted research that involved milking the venom from tarantulas to potentially grow neurons. At OMRF, because of my interest in asthma, I was assigned to the lab of physician-scientist John Harley, a board-certified allergist and immunologist, and renowned lupus researcher. I was intrigued by the concept of autoimmunity and really liked the patients; some were my same age. I continued to work with Dr. Harley throughout my undergraduate and medical training, and never left. I joined the foundation’s scientific staff in 1994 as a physician-scientist. While Dr. Harley continues to focus on the genetic predispositions to lupus, my work has moved to testing treatments that hopefully will delay or even prevent disease onset in at-risk patients. I have a small clinical practice in which I see patients, and a big research lab.
Q: How did you realize that an anti-malarial drug decreases flares and limits organ damage in lupus and other patients?
A: I wondered if lupus patients had rogue autoantibodies before they developed lupus. Of course, there’s no way to turn back the clock after someone develops the disease. But I knew the Department of Defense has biological samples and medical records for soldiers and sailors. In researching those records, we found 130 servicemen and women developed lupus, and 88 percent of them had telltale autoantibodies up to a decade before they became ill. Upon deeper analysis, we found there were longer times between the appearance of antibodies and symptoms of lupus in those who served in areas where they were given an anti-malarial drug. Subsequently, we proved the drug has a similar effect against rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune disease. Thanks to a $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the OMRF now has a patient clinic and massive bio depository freezer facility for our own clinical samples. The facility has led to hundreds of research studies in lupus and other autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Sjögren’s syndrome, scleroderma and sarcoidosis. This resulted in OMRF being designated as a National Institutes of Health Autoimmunity Center of Excellence. We’re one of 10 nationwide, along with Stanford, Yale, Duke and others, which shared in an award of more than $50 million.
Q: What’s one of the best fringe benefits of your work?
A: I love the opportunity to mentor high school and college kids, and watch them go on to do great things. Close to 100 kids have come through the lab, and today are on faculty at Columbia, Duke, University of Chicago and elsewhere.