On the state of the world and autoimmune diseases

Cuban scientist Ariana Barbera is working hard to develop our knowledge of autoimmune diseases, which occur when the body attacks itself. Today, there are more than 80 diseases that can be classified as autoimmune, and just as many applicable treatments. Investigating the role of T-Cells in the body’s immune system, Ariana Barbera hopes to find and develop new forms of desperately needed treatments.

DiscovHER - What can you tell us about autoimmune diseases?

Ariana Barbera - Autoimmune diseases are a group of more than 80 chronic inflammatory illnesses that collectively affect 5% to 8% of the worldwide population, 78% of whom are women, and – for reasons unknown – their prevalence is rising. To date, the majority of therapies approved by the FDA for autoimmune diseases have focused on the global inhibition of immune inflammatory activity. However, not all patients respond to these therapies, and the benefits of this form of treatment are short. In addition, due to the fact that they induce a generalized and non-specific inhibition of immune response, these drugs have considerable side effects.


D/H - What is the current state of research regarding these diseases?

AB - The major goal of current research is the development of antigen-specific treatments for the specific blockade of pathogenic cells, without affecting immune responses involved in host defense. My work is related to this issue and I hope it can deliver important information on possible new drugs with higher safety profiles compared with already approved drugs for treatment of patients with autoimmune diseases.


D/H - What other headlines in science resonate with you?

AB - Climate change is the biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time. Its effects—higher temperatures of earth's atmosphere (global warming), changes in precipitation patterns, rising sea levels, and more frequent weather-related disasters—pose risks for agriculture, food, and water supplies. Specifically, global warming is one of the most concerning issues.

There are also problems related to environmental destruction, resource depletion and over population. The natural resources of this planet, its forests, fisheries and crop lands are already being used at such a rate that is unsustainable. We are already using the planets renewable resources faster than what the planet can replenish.

Also, I would like to refer to the potential of stem cells for treatment of different devastating diseases. Perhaps the most important potential application of human stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including: Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. But, only a few stem-cell-based treatments, have proven beneficial for patients in rigorous clinical trials and are now offered as treatments. Importantly, the ethical behavior of scientists in this field is critical because the misuse of this technology may cause severe damage to humanity.


D/H - Do you remember why you wanted to become a scientist?

AB - The idea of becoming a scientist was in my mind at early age, because my father is a scientist.

But this not all, when I was studying in Senior High School, I realized that scientists have a very important mission: to discover and understand the reasons why things happen.

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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