When Nicole Ward stepped on stage to give a talk to one of her professional organizations, she was thinking about the speech—not the pioneering gesture taking the podium would be.
It had a catchy main title, “Modeling Mayhem,” and focused on a key aspect of her life’s work: what goes wrong in the body that leads to one of the world’s most common autoimmune diseases, psoriasis.
In fact, Ward, an associate professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve, was so comfortable with her subject that she didn’t even write out a speech; she simply put together a PowerPoint presentation and spoke from the slides.
The approach worked: One colleague wrote to say her remarks more resembled a TED Talk than an address at a scientific conference. (For those unfamiliar with TED Talks, they are engaging addresses designed to spread ideas—the top three on YouTube alone have nearly 30 million views).
Even though she evidenced no sign of nerves, Ward certainly would have been forgiven a whiff of anxiety. In giving the 2016 Eugene M. Farber lecture at the Society for Investigative Dermatology’s (SID) annual meeting earlier this month, she was marking multiple firsts: first woman, first non-MD, and youngest ever to receive the opportunity.
“It was an amazing experience,” Ward recalled of giving the talk. “I was so honored.”
The Farber lecture is named for one of the world’s most accomplished researchers of psoriasis (the late Stanford University professor was a leading investigator on the clinical studies that showed the effectiveness of Benadryl, the first antihistamine). Just a few years earlier, Ward’s much more veteran department chair, Kevin Cooper, gave the Farber lecture—and he is the co-inventor of the first biologic to secure FDA approval for psoriasis.
Nevertheless, even a quick look at Ward’s recent achievements well illustrate why the SID’s annual meeting organizers sought her out. Take 2013, for example, when Ward secured three major awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), totaling more than $4.2 million—even though that was the year when budget gridlock led to sequestration and automatic spending cuts of billions of dollars from federal spending, including money for research.
As Ward, also a scientist with the Murdough Family Center for Psoriasis at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, told Crain’s Cleveland Business at the time: “I’m a big nerd. This stuff gets me excited.”
It must. One of Ward’s most impressive breakthroughs involved development of an animal model that responds to potential psoriasis treatments the way a human with the disease would. In other words, a therapeutic that wouldn’t work on a patient also doesn’t work with the model—and vice versa. The model proved invaluable to an extraordinary research success in 2015: With a team of CWRU and University of Michigan colleagues, Ward was able to narrow the list of proteins in the body that could contribute to psoriasis from 50,000, to 1,280, and ultimately, just four. The previous year Ward collaborated with a colleague at SUNY Downstate Medical Center to demonstrate the potential efficacy of botulinum neurotoxin A (it’s known as Dysport, but its formula is similar to the one commonly known as Botox) in reducing inflammation associated with psoriasis.
In 2012 and 2013, meanwhile, Ward helped show why physicians had observed an increased frequency of cardiovascular issues in patients with chronic psoriasis. Working in collaboration with experts in heart disease, Ward found that the inflammation characteristic of psoriasis can then affect blood vessels, including the aorta. What’s more, aggressive treatment of psoriasis early can reduce the chances of cardiovascular problems. Ward followed up those findings last year with research that showed the chronic nature of psoriasis was the definite culprit; acute cases did not increase heart risk.
So what’s next for the self-described “nerd”? There’s much more to explore regarding Dysport’s potential benefits to patients, ideally through a full clinical trial. She’s also partnered with department colleague Thomas McCormick to study whether omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fish oil could improve psoriasis symptoms. And the team involved in narrowing the protein list to four now wants to understand more about the role each plays in the disease.
“Psoriasis is such a widespread and difficult disease,” said Ward. “We owe it to patients to pursue every plausible avenue to find ways to alleviate symptoms and, ultimately, provide a cure.”