Dr. Nicole Ward of Case Western Reserve University thought she wanted to study anatomy. But early in her career she discovered a passion for dermatology, focusing on the science of psoriatic disease. The recipient of numerous research grants from the National Psoriasis Foundation, as well as funding from the National Institutes of Health, Ward has made key discoveries about how and why people with psoriatic disease develop comorbidities like heart disease. Her latest project will explore how taking fish oil might improve psoriasis. In July, she’ll be co-chairing the National Psoriasis Foundation Research Symposium, which brings together scientists and patients to explore the latest developments in the field of psoriatic disease.
Here, she talks about her plans for the Symposium, what she’s learned from patients, and how she started studying psoriasis by accident. You can connect with Ward on Twitter at @PskinPscientist.
Question: How did you become interested in studying psoriatic disease?
Answer: This is an interesting story. I actually have a Ph.D. in neurobiology, and I was studying how nerves and blood vessels in the skin seem to pattern each other and develop. When I was generating a mouse model [a mouse engineered to have a certain disease] to study that neurovascular interaction in the skin, I serendipitously created this mouse—the KC-Tie2 mouse—that developed this phenotype, this skin disease. It wasn’t expected. […] So, that’s kind of how it happened. I developed this mouse that got flaky skin, it looked like psoriasis, and at the same time, my office was directly across the hall from the dermatology department. […] I really transitioned my entire research career to study inflammatory skin disease, and obviously it evolved into studying cardiovascular disease, and the link between skin inflammation and the cardiovascular events. It’s just been a phenomenal trip, I can tell you that. It’s been a great, great experience.
Question: It sounds like it all kind of started by chance. You were working on something else, but you developed this mouse model that you’re noticing has these psoriasis-like features.
Answer: In science, we do things, and we go in with an expectation of what’s going to happen. Often, if you can keep your eyes and your mind open enough to the unexpected, the unexpected findings often give rise to amazing results.
Question: How did you take that initial interest and channel that into what you’re currently working on?
Answer: The disease is absolutely fascinating to a nerd like myself. It’s fascinating, it’s complicated, it’s smart, there are so many different communications going on between the cells and the disease. And there are so many comorbidities. We know that psoriasis patients have this increased risk for stroke and heart attack. We know they develop psoriatic arthritis. They have increased prevalence of having depression, obesity. What I’m interested in figuring out is, why is that? […] We listen to patients and they say, ‘You know what? I lost a bunch of weight. Or I started adding fish oil. I modified my diet and my psoriasis improved.’ We hear all these anecdotal stories from patients. I’m curious to take what they’re saying, listening to them, hearing them, bringing that information and those questions back into the lab, and trying to figure out why that is.
Question: So would you say that some of your research actually stems from things that you’re hearing anecdotally from patients, and then you kind of turn it over in your mind, and see what you can do with it?
Answer: Very much so. One of the things that I took from the [NPF National Volunteer Conference] that was in Chicago two years ago was the opportunity to talk to patients, many patients, in one room, listen to them, listen to their stories. And I’m truly interested in what they want. […] I’m so excited about what’s going to happen in San Francisco. The people that are coming to this meeting, both the scientists and the volunteers, are truly spectacular.
Question: What are you speaking about at the Symposium?
Answer: For the first time ever, I’m going to be paired with Nehal Mehta, a cardiologist who works at NHLBI [National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health]. He’s been instrumental in taking psoriasis patients and figuring out what’s going on in their cardiovascular system. […] We’re going to do a back-and-forth where he’s going to present all the human data, I’m going to present all of the mouse model data, and hopefully people will get the sense of, you need to do translational research. You need to be able to take what you’re doing at the lab bench, and it needs to actually make sense in terms of the patient.
Question: What do you think patients should be aware of, in terms of what’s going on in psoriatic disease research?
Answer: People need to know that, number one, that we can help their disease improve. There are new drugs out there other than coal tar and the old school smearing topicals on that people think of when they have psoriasis. Number two, if you have severe psoriasis, the drugs that are currently available are amazing. They will change your quality of life. Ask for help. Seek out dermatologists. Go online, find the blogs, find organizations like the Psoriasis Foundation, get information, get educated, because there is an amazing opportunity to treat your disease and improve your quality of life.
Driving discovery, creating community
For more than 50 years, we’ve been driving efforts to cure psoriatic disease and improve the lives of those affected. But there’s still plenty to do! Learn how you can help our advocacy team shape the laws and policies that affect people with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis – in your state and across the country. Help us raise funds to support research by joining Team NPF, where you can walk, run, cycle, play bingo or create your own fundraising event. If you or someone you love needs free, personalized support for living a healthier life with psoriatic disease, contact our Patient Navigation Center. And keep the National Psoriasis Foundation going strong by making a donation today. Together, we will find a cure.