Personal experience also guided Adriana Zupa-Fernandez in her quest to find a treatment for patients with autoimmune diseases, a group she calls an “underserved population.”
More than 23 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health. The diseases—in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells, tissues and organs—can be debilitating and life-threatening, with vague symptoms that can be difficult to diagnose.
Zupa-Fernandez would know. After long experiencing dizziness, fatigue, skin rashes and gastrointestinal distress, she was diagnosed with three autoimmune diseases, which she attributes to genetics, and two bacterial meningitis infections contracted in childhood.
Learning more about her own illness inspired Zupa-Fernandez, now 37 and a research scientist for Bristol Myers Squibb, to focus her career on immunology.
That paved the way for participation as a scientist in a potentially groundbreaking project: an immunotherapy compound designed to quiet the immune system.
“In some autoimmune diseases, certain immune cells over-fire or overact,” Zupa-Fernandez says. “We are investigating how to dampen those cells so that the immune system doesn’t end up harming its own organs.”
The research is particularly important because people with autoimmune diseases have limited treatment options.
Zupa-Fernandez occasionally takes steroids and other drugs for her illnesses. She has also adopted a new lifestyle including, acupuncture, yoga and an organic, gluten-free diet.
Health challenges have motivated Zupa-Fernandez to make the most of each day, especially at work.
“I’m lucky enough to be here and research diseases that have personally touched me or people I care about,” she says, “so I give it my all.”