Licking Lupus: A Conversation with Physician-Researcher Lindsey Criswell

By Jeff Miller

Photo of Lindsey Criswell

Lindsey Criswell

Lupus has always been one of those mysterious autoimmune diseases. Difficult to diagnose – with a moving menu of symptoms ranging from mild rashes and joint pain to kidney inflammation, dizziness and heart disease – it has confounded practitioners and bedeviled patients for centuries. That nine of 10 patients are also women hasn’t helped; women’s complaints about something so variable traditionally hasn’t registered with the same impact as those about other, more definitive diseases and conditions.

Happily, that is changing. And helping to lead the way is UCSF Professor of Medicine Lindsey Criswell, MD, MPH. Criswell, who saw her first lupus patients during her medical residency, is one of a new breed of researchers armed with genetic tools, new drugs and a new, optimistic attitude about beating this autoimmune disease – and others like rheumatoid arthritis – back into a corner.

It’s been a long time coming, as millions of patients will attest. The first published reports of lupus-like symptoms appeared in the 13th-century text of the physician Rogerius. Indeed, the name lupus comes from the Latin for wolf because Rogerius thought the facial rash that sometimes appears on lupus sufferers resembled wolf bites.

Criswell’s 21st-century confidence stems from the results of a collaborative research study, published in the September 6, 2007, edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. She led the UCSF team that helped to identify a gene that increases a person’s risk for rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus. Why this finding is so critical, what role modern life plays in the development of lupus and what it might say about the evolutionary origins of autoimmune disease are clearly on her mind.

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Related Links

Increased Risk for Arthritis and Lupus Tied to New Gene
UCSF Today, September 6, 2007
The History of Lupus Erythematosus
Lupus Foundation of America, Inc.
Rogerius (physician)