07:00 AM

Barbara Volcker Center Marks 20 Years of Research & Clinical Work

Rheumatic diseases affect women two to four times more often than men. Studying the sex differences in autoimmune conditions has been the focus of the Barbara Volcker Center for Women and Rheumatic Diseases at Hospital for Special Surgery. In a feature article by The Rheumatologist, HSS rheumatologists recall the history and ongoing mission of the Center as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.

HSS rheumatologist Michael D. Lockshin, MD, and director of the Center, shared his conversations with patient Barbara Volcker, wife of former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. According to the article, Mrs. Volcker met Dr. Lockshin in the 1970s to treat her rheumatoid arthritis.

"She was the type of patient that I really enjoyed taking care of because she challenged me on everything. She would say, 'But that answer doesn't make sense. Give me the information behind it. Convince me.' She drove me to question my own assumptions to respond to her," said Dr. Lockshin.

In the late 1990s, Mrs. Volcker's health worsened, and the Volckers offered to establish a center at HSS to honor her. Dr. Steven Paget, who was physician in chief at HSS, and Dr. Charles Christian, who was the emeritus physician in chief, invited Dr. Lockshin, then acting director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), to discuss the center's mission, and he was ultimately offered the job as director, a position he still holds.

The Center was established in 1997. Mrs. Volcker passed away the following year at the age of 68.

"Her questions are the core of the Center that bears her name," noted Dr. Lockshin.

The Center convened a conference on the biology of sex differences in autoimmune illness—the first of its kind—within a year of opening its doors, notes Dr. Lockshin. The topic later gained national attention for all human health when the Institute of Medicine (later renamed the National Academy of Medicine) convened a committee to address the same question and published a report in 2001, according to Dr. Lockshin, who served on the committee. Doruk Erkan, MD, MPH, a rheumatologist at HSS whose early research focused on antiphospholipid syndrome, joined the Center in 2005 as physician-scientist.

Today, the Center is marking 20 years of research and clinical work devoted to women with various rheumatic conditions. According to Dr. Lockshin, physicians at the Center see more than 3,000 individual patients for issues of pregnancy and contraception, antiphospholipid syndrome, and other rheumatic illnesses.

As part of the Center's research, HSS rheumatologists Jane E. Salmon, MD and Lisa R. Sammaritano, MD are co-investigators of a study on hormone treatment in lupus as well as pregnancy in lupus patients.

Additionally, HSS research associate Mikhail Olferiev, MD received a grant from the center to study the expression of genes across health donors and patients with lupus. "I hope that my study will contribute to a better understanding of an autoimmune disease and possibly identify new therapeutic targets," Dr. Olferiev said.

HSS scientist Theresa T. Lu, MD, PhD also received a grant to study whether fat tissue might influence stromal cells in lymph nodes to contribute to sex differences in rheumatic diseases.

Dr. Lockshin explained that concepts and ideas about pregnancy and issues related to women with rheumatic diseases have changed over time in part because of research discoveries coming out of HSS.

Additionally, the Center recently welcomed a new member, HSS rheumatologist Medha Barbhaiya, MD, MPH. Dr. Barbhaiya explained that she joined HSS because of the Center's strong emphasis on clinical care and clinical research related to lupus, antiphospholipid syndrome, and pregnancy in rheumatic diseases.

Several of its members hold leadership positions associated with the Center's mission, according to Dr. Lockshin. For example, Dr. Erkan chairs both the Antiphospholipid Syndrome Alliance for Clinical Trials and International Networking, headquartered at the Center, and the 15th International Congress on Antiphospholipid Antibodies. Kyriakos Kirou, MD, conducts lupus nephritis clinical trials, and Dr. Sammaritano chairs the ACR Reproductive Health Guideline Project. With a background in environmental causes of autoimmune illnesses, Dr. Barbhaiya is involved with the ACR. In addition, Dr. Lockshin served on committees with a focus on pregnancy, sex differences, and other aspects of autoimmune illness and he is past editor in chief of Arthritis & Rheumatism (now Arthritis & Rheumatology).

In a phone interview, Mr. Volcker said that he is delighted with the Center's accomplishments over the years. Furthermore, he said he is sure if Mrs. Volcker were alive she would be "very pleased and happy that her name was attached to it, no doubt in my mind".

Read the full article at the-rheumatologist.org. This also appeared in the January 2018 print issue.