NIAMS Director Reflects on Mentors, Spotlights Research Projects

Doug Brunk

October 01, 2021

After many years at the University of California, San Francisco, Lindsey A. Criswell, MD, MPH, DSc, began a new chapter in February 2021 as the director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease, part of the National Institutes of Health. NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, selected her for the post.

"Dr Criswell has rich experience as a clinician, researcher, and administrator," Collins said in a prepared statement. "Her ability to oversee the research program of one of the country's top research-intensive medical schools, and her expertise in autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, make her well positioned to direct NIAMS."

Criswell, a rheumatologist, was named a full professor of medicine at UCSF in 2007 and had served as vice chancellor of research at the university since 2017. She has authored more than 250 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and her efforts have contributed to the identification of more than 30 genes linked to autoimmune disorders. In her first media interview, Criswell opens up about her mentors, operational challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and highlights many NIAMS research projects underway.

Who inspired you most early in your career as a physician scientist? 

I have had great opportunities to work with fabulous mentors. Wallace (Wally) Epstein, MD, was my mentor when I was a rheumatology fellow and junior faculty member at UCSF. He was broadly admired for the breadth of his experience as a clinician and a researcher, and he was noteworthy at that time for his strong support for women and students of color. One of the many things I appreciated about him was his diverse range of interests outside of work, which included cello playing and woodworking.

Another mentor was Ephraim (Eph) Engleman, MD, the first academic rheumatologist in California. Eph continued to see patients beyond the age of 100. Perhaps his most important contributions were his efforts towards advocacy for funding for research and education in rheumatology. A prodigy violinist, he too had a broad range of personal interests.

What research into the genetics and epidemiology of human autoimmune disease that you have been a part of has most surprised you, in term of its ultimate clinical impact? 

Some of my most rewarding and impactful work has focused on the shared genetic basis of autoimmune diseases. We've identified dozens of genes that contribute to the risk and outcome of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other autoimmune disorders. These discoveries regarding shared genes and pathways among such a diverse set of conditions have helped to inform optimal therapeutic target and treatment strategies across multiple diseases.

For example, exploration of RA genes and pathways has revealed that approved agents for other conditions, such as cancer, may be appropriately repurposed for the treatment of RA. These are critical observations that have the potential to dramatically accelerate progress in developing new therapies for autoimmune diseases, such as RA.

Did you have much interaction with Stephen I. Katz, MD, PhD, your longtime predecessor who passed away unexpectedly in 2018? If so, what do you remember most about him? I regret that I had very little interaction with Steve, but I am well aware of the impact he had on NIAMS, NIH, and the research enterprise overall. He inspired so many people in a personal way, and I am energized by the legacy that he left behind.

What are your goals for the early part of your tenure as the new director of NIAMS? 

An important goal is getting to know the NIAMS community and expanding my knowledge of the Institute's musculoskeletal and skin portfolios. I am also conducting outreach to Institute/Center directors and other NIH leadership to increase opportunities for input and advice. In doing this, I am identifying shared research interests, best practices, and potential partners for possible future collaborations. Another important goal is to increase NIAMS' visibility within and beyond NIH. Ultimately, I want to contribute to the great work of the Institute and improve the lives of people with rheumatic, musculoskeletal, and skin diseases.

How would you characterize your management style? 

I like to lead with a flat hierarchy and work collectively to address opportunities and challenges. I value team building and tend to tap a variety of perspectives and expertise at all levels to achieve consensus, where possible.

The Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) program was launched in 2014, with projects in three disease areas including the autoimmune disorders RA and lupus. What are some recent highlights from this program with respect to RA and lupus?

AMP RA/SLE was dedicated to identifying promising therapeutic targets for RA and systemic lupus erythematosus. AMP-funded researchers have applied cutting-edge technologies to study cells from the synovial tissues of the joints of people with RA, and from the kidneys of people with lupus nephritis. In 2014, studying tissues in patients where the disease is active was a novel approach, since most research was conducted in mouse models or human blood samples.

The AMP RA/SLE Network developed a rich dataset that is available to the research community. Investigators are now using the data to facilitate RA and lupus research. For example, using AMP data, NIAMS-supported researchers identified potential biomarkers that could help predict an imminent RA flare. Work from another NIAMS-supported group suggests that targeting the regulatory transcription factor HIF-1, which drives inflammation and tissue damage, might be an effective approach for treating renal injury in lupus.

The data generated are accessible to the scientific community through two NIH websites: the database of Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP) and the Immunology Database and Analysis Portal (IMMPORT).

Given the success of AMP RA/SLE, NIH plans to launch an "AMP 2.0" later in 2021. The AMP Autoimmune and Immune-Mediated Diseases (AMP AIM) program will provide an opportunity to leverage the accomplishments of AMP RA/SLE to new conditions, including psoriatic spectrum diseases and Sjögren's syndrome.

What are some recent highlights from NIAMS-supported research in skin diseases? 

NIAMS-supported investigators continue to make significant strides in our understanding of skin biology and disease. For example, researchers recently demonstrated that imiquimod, a drug used to treat precancerous skin lesions, can help mouse ear wounds heal without scarring.

Another team addressed the safety and potential benefit of Staphylococcus hominis A9, a bacterium isolated from healthy human skin, as a topical therapy for atopic dermatitis.

Moving forward, AMP AIM will refine and extend the single-cell analysis of tissues to additional diseases, including psoriasis, setting the stage for the discovery of new therapeutic targets for the disease.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of research, at least for the short term? 

This is a once-in-a-century pandemic that none of us were fully prepared for. We understand that it has been particularly challenging for women scientists, scientists with young children, and trainees and junior faculty who are at critically important and vulnerable stages of their careers. There isn't a lab or clinical setting that hasn't been negatively impacted in some way.

During the pandemic, the NIH instituted administrative flexibilities to support the grantee community, including extensions in time. In addition, the agency has issued several funding opportunities specific to COVID-19, some of which involve NIAMS participation.

What is NIAMS doing to help early/young investigators as well as female investigators and those from minority groups? 

Structural racism in biomedical research is a heightened concern. Earlier this year, Dr. Collins established the UNITE initiative to address structural racism and promote racial equity and inclusion at the NIH and within the larger biomedical community that we support. NIAMS is fully committed to this effort. One example is the Diversity Supplement Program, which is designed to attract and encourage eligible individuals from underrepresented populations to research careers.

Early-stage investigators are another top priority. In a tribute to the beloved former NIAMS director, NIH recently established the Stephen I. Katz Early Stage Investigator Research Grant Program. The R01 award provides support for a project unrelated to an early investigator's area of postdoctoral study. (No preliminary data are allowed.) This award mechanism is a unique opportunity for early-stage investigators to take their research in a completely new direction.

Managing work and family life is an important concern, particularly for female investigators. Many NIH grant awards allow for reimbursement of actual, allowable costs incurred for childcare and parental leave. The NIH is exploring initiatives to promote research continuity and retention of eligible investigators facing major life events, such as pregnancy, childbirth, and adoption, at vulnerable career stages.

Who inspires you most in your work today? 

I am inspired by the ongoing struggles of our patients, junior investigators, and by the committed staff members on my team.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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