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Headshot of Nicole Ward, PhD with graphic saying "Women Who Lead"
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Celebrating Women Who Lead: Nicole Ward, Ph.D.

Get to know one of the three distinguished honorees for the 2022 NPF Commit to Cure Gala.

From the founding of the National Psoriasis Foundation to the organization you see today, women have led the way. In June, hundreds will gather in Chicago, IL to honor April Armstrong, M.D., MPH, Dafna Gladman, M.D., and Nicole Ward, Ph.D. for their contributions to the psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis community at the 2022 Commit to Cure Gala: Celebrating Women Who Lead. We sat down with Dr. Ward to learn more about her journey and the women who inspire her.

Why did you go into psoriatic disease research?

For me it was a bit of serendipity. I was studying how nerves and vessels interact in whole animal models, and serendipitously created a flaky skin mouse. My dad has psoriasis, so I recognized that the skin looked a lot like what psoriasis looks like. My office and lab also happened to be across the hall from the department of dermatology research labs, and the offices of Tom McCormick and Kevin Cooper. I would always go over to their offices and labs to get help and to talk about psoriasis and immunology and skin. They ultimately recruited me into their department, and from that point forward my research lab and career have focused on better understanding psoriasis pathogenesis, engineering new mouse models of psoriatic disease, and trying to figure out why psoriasis patients develop comorbidities, what the mechanisms of this are, and whether there is a way to predict who will develop them. Then, if so, how to prevent and treat them.  

What moment from your career are you most proud of?

Receiving the Eugene Farber Award at the Annual Society for Investigative Dermatology meeting in 2016. I was the first woman to be awarded this honor, the first non-M.D., and the youngest scientist. To be on that list of names of awardees – of people I highly respect for their contributions to psoriatic disease research and understanding – even now, it makes me shake my head a little bit. I am still in awe of all of them. It still feels weird to see my name up there next to their names.

When/Why did you get involved with the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF)?

As I switched to dermatology. NPF research grants have been instrumental in my success. I struggled to get my science funded at first by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and NPF really supported me. I have been very lucky to have been awarded several NPF grants. Each of these awards permitted me to generate critical preliminary data that allowed me to obtain NIH funding. Because of this additional funding, the return on investment for NPF and the psoriasis community has been excellent. These NPF awards that people with psoriatic disease, volunteers, and staff raise money for have done this not just for me, but for so many different scientists. This program has had a major impact in the field of psoriatic disease research, treatment, and cure. The new initiatives NPF has ongoing are equally exciting – the PsA Diagnostic Test Grant, the Psoriasis Prevention Initiative, and the More Than Skin Deep mental health grant, among others.

The thing that keeps me involved is the people. I love interacting with the patients and the volunteers, the other scientists and clinicians, the staff and leadership at NPF, and lobbying with all of them on Capitol Hill to try and encourage change at a higher level. NPF has been with me my entire career, and I hope that never changes.

What do you want people with psoriatic disease to know?

I want psoriasis patients to know that there are currently many options that can help them manage the disease. These are life changing treatments. Someone with severe plaque psoriasis can now go from almost fully covered in plaques to clear or almost clear with the biologics we have access to.

I want psoriasis patients to know that scientists like myself hear them and want to help them. We are currently looking at how diet may change skin inflammation in our mouse models. The patients asked for this, and we are doing it. I really want psoriasis patients to feel like their concerns and wishes are heard not only at the doctor’s office but also at the bench in our research labs. I am listening. Please keep talking with us.

What do you see as the future of psoriatic disease?

I am really excited about getting a better understanding of why comorbidities develop and how we can best treat them in individual patients. This gets at personalized medicine and better understanding why some patients develop psoriatic arthritis (PsA), others develop inflammatory bowel disease, and some develop depression.

If we can determine why individual patients develop a certain disease pattern (or endotype), we can determine the best treatment approach for them. Much like it is done in cancer treatment, where the type and subtype of cancer a patient has dictates their personalized treatment, I am really excited about being better able to understand the “type” of psoriasis a patient has and being able to identify or predict what comorbidities they may develop. Then, a personalized treatment plan can be developed for them. OK, the physicians will do this, not me. But I hope to be behind some of the information that will help the clinicians understand who will and who won’t develop certain comorbidities, and how best to treat patients with multiple comorbidities.

Personalized medicine – I hope that is the future for psoriatic disease research and clinical practice.

What woman in your life inspires you?

Two women - my mom and my friend, Tamara. They share this amazing spirit of generosity, compassion, patience, love and appreciation of life, gratitude and understanding. If I could bottle what they have and sell it, I could run my lab off the proceeds. They are my rocks. They listen to me when I am frustrated and reframe things for me so that I can “see the light.” They inspire me in their ability to do what they do each day – caring for people who are dying, being there for others during times of need, putting others first, and juggling everything that comes their way while staying positive and maintaining a sense of humor.

They also have this crazy ability to feed 30 people at a dining room table without breaking a sweat! These two inspire me every day. They have taught me that laughter (out loud) will always make you feel better, that sadness is not a bad thing, and that kindness makes the world a better place for everyone. I think we should all try to be more like my mom, Bev, and my friend, Tamara.

[Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and style.]

Who Inspires You?

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