Addressing the Diverse World of Autoimmune Disease Using Health Tech

Approaching the Diverse World of Autoimmune Disease Using Health Technology

Certain autoimmune conditions are sometimes referred to as “invisible” diseases. A person experiencing an autoimmune flare might not appear outwardly sick to others; yet, he or she inwardly is suffering a profound body change and is struggling to keep afloat. According to Dr. Bonnie Feldman, the founder of DrBonnie360-Your Autoimmunity Connection, it takes on average 3.6 years and 5 doctors to arrive at an autoimmune diagnosis. Frequently, people are only given a broad, unspecified name of a condition with autoimmune characteristics.

This implies many people live in turmoil for many years before they are finally diagnosed properly. However, for many patients—and there are about 250,000 new cases each year—getting the right diagnosis is just the beginning of a long journey. Standard medical treatments are often symptomatic and rely on drugs that do not always work in a durable fashion and/or have undesirable side effects. Therefore, many people turn to complementary methods. For example, diet is emerging as a possible modality for treating these conditions and increasing one's overall quality of life.

Some experts believe that digital tools and medical technology can contribute to better treatment options for patients with autoimmune diseases. Technology can bring together different types of autoimmune patients (there are over 100 conditions that fit under the autoimmune umbrella) and allow for data sharing. Technology might also be able to help build the bridge between theory and practice. Organizations such as DrBonnie360 are aiming to connect digital technology with the latest scientific findings and lifestyle modifications so that people living with autoimmune conditions can maximize their well-being.

Gut as an Autoimmune Organ

Recent research recognized the gut as the key organ of immunity connecting body, brain and microbes that live in and on us. Professor Michele Kosiewicz of the University of Louisville, who has a special research interest in autoimmunity and microbiota, published a number of articles on the subject, including one that described the complex relationship between the gut bacteria and development of diseases in other organs. She explains that the interaction between the gut microbiota and cells of the immune system play an essential role in the development of inflammatory conditions, such as autoimmune diseases and allergies.

This notion is still in its infancy; however, many interventions are now being developed that target the gut and often include dietary changes and stress reduction. To engage patients, digital tools can be extremely helpful and assist behavior change, as well as aid dietary and lifestyle changes necessary for their recovery. Total fecal transplants are also becoming a viable option for some people with inflammatory diseases. This treatment is already being used for recurrent C.difficile infections and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is expected that similar procedures will be developed for other conditions associated with the altered microbiota.

Looking at the Underlying Cause of Autoimmune Disease

A 2011 TEDx talk, delivered by Dr. Terry Wahls, launched a debate on holistic treatments for autoimmune disease. Wahls, who has a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), showed that the problems of autoimmunity needed to be addressed at a cellular level. She was committed to a scientific exploration of her disease, and consequently, she improved her condition significantly. At the same time, she made this important knowledge available to everyone. Many patients decided to follow her lead by accessing her online talks and publications. Wahls devised a protocol—named the Wahls protocol—that focuses on nutritional support and lifestyle changes, and she and her colleagues are performing ongoing research to verify and develop it further. They recently performed a randomized control trial that showed a Paleolithic diet may improve fatigue, quality of life and dominant hand motor function in people with progressive multiple sclerosis. Dr. Wahls and her team believe a Paleo diet should be considered as a potential treatment for multiple sclerosis and used in addition to other available therapies.

Other autoimmune experts also suggest that to understand the underlying cause of autoimmune problems, patients need to donate their data and work toward finding common themes that might point toward a cause.

Transparency Life Sciences (TLS) is a company that recognizes the potential of data sharing. It uses crowdsourcing strategies and open innovation and is often able to reduce clinical trial costs by considering patient input. One strategy the company offers includes virtual trials. This reduces the need to visit distant clinical sites and enables everyone to participate. TLS has multiple ongoing research projects, ranging from exploring telemedicine acceptance in patients with IBD to studying the effects of lisinopril (an ACE inhibitor) in MS patients.

Documenting Success and Giving Hope

Although many consider autoimmune diseases incurable, there are many others who purport to have drastically improved their condition after they have implemented certain life changes. These cases are often regarded as anecdotes, lacking any type of scientific rigor. Digital technology can help record and study successful individuals and use them as case studies that potentially could validate certain approaches for treating autoimmune conditions.

If people who get better are scientifically studied, scientists can figure out what modalities are effective treatment pathways. Unfortunately, few rigorous and well-documented studies have been executed to date. Research on autoimmunity has largely been fragmented across different communities, so it requires a unifying element to transcend different impeding silos and bring common knowledge together. Dr. Martha Herbert from Harvard Medical School urges the medical community to examine the environment and nutrition of autoimmune sufferers carefully, as well as identify why recovery happens in certain individuals. Her work mainly focuses on thyroid disorders and autism (which has also been linked to body inflammation) and examines the role of dietary proteins in autoimmunity. Through the collection of data, potential broad-based autoimmune remediation strategies can be discovered and further developed.

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