Spotlight On: Judith James, M.D., Ph.D.

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As both a board-certified rheumatologist and internationally-acclaimed researcher, Dr. Judith James has been instrumental in improving the lives of people with lupus & other rheumatic diseases.

Even as a child, Judith James was planning for a career in medicine. “When I was 4, I told my pediatrician that I wanted to be a doctor,” said James in a 2017 interview with the Oklahoman. Today, she is regarded as one of the foremost experts in lupus and has published more than 270 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including:

  • The New England Journal of Medicine
  • Nature Medicine
  • The Journal of Experimental Medicine
  • Annals of Rheumatic Diseases
  • Arthritis and Rheumatology

A fifth-generation Oklahoman, James was the valedictorian of her high school class before attending Oklahoma Baptist University where she played the piano in the University Chorale. Her research career with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) began with an internship prior to her senior year.

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OMRF received its charter from the Oklahoma Secretary of State in 1946. Thanks to grassroots fundraising efforts in all 77 Oklahoma counties, $2.25 million were raised for the construction of laboratories and research facilities. Today, more than 400 people work at OMRF, studying autoimmune diseases, cancer, heart disease, and aging. This work has led to hundreds of patents and multiple life-saving medications.

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Dr. James was the 1988 Sir Alexander Fleming Scholar. Named for the British scientist who discovered penicillin, the Fleming Scholar Program encourages “hands on” biomedical research experience to students.  James worked with Dr. John Harley, a board-certified allergist/immunologist and rheumatologist, and himself a renowned lupus researcher, throughout her undergraduate and medical training. She was intrigued by the concept of autoimmunity and enjoyed working with patients, some of whom were her own age. By 1994, James’ had earned both her Ph.D. and M.D. from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and won the Outstanding Student Award from the American College of Rheumatology.

After graduation, Dr. James took a position at OMRF and never left. She has won numerous awards for her work including the 2000 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and the 2000 Merck Young Investigator Award.

Dr. James’ current work in lupus has focused on “testing treatments that hopefully will delay or even prevent disease onset in at-risk patients.” By conducting research with the Department of Defense, she discovered that anti-malarial drugs (e.g., hydroxychloroquine or Plaquenil) could slow the accrual of new autoantibodies and progression to clinical lupus, laying the foundation for prevention trials in lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) which are ongoing at OMRF.

Dr. James also led efforts which led to OMRF receiving a $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further this and other lupus research, including the development of a massive bio-repository to store clinical samples. As a result of this effort, OMRF has received 15 years of competitive funding as a National Institutes of Health Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, one of only 10 nationwide. Other Centers of Excellence include Harvard, Columbia, and Emory.

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Today, Dr. James continues her research at OMRF while serving as the Vice President of Clinical Affairs, overseeing all clinical activities at the foundation. She chairs the OMRF Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Research Program and holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research. She also serves as the Associate Vice Provost for Clinical and Translational Science and Professor of Medicine and Pathology at the adjacent University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Still, she sees lupus patients and continues her research, exploring treatments and biological pathways linked to lupus.

Using mathematical modeling, Dr. James is pinpointing “easily testable markers of SLE risk.” She and her team are identifying biologic pathways that are suggestive of immune imbalances and even lupus diagnosis. This work has led to the development of new lupus tests offered by Progentec, a life sciences company. Dr. James’ research is ushering in a new era of lupus diagnostics and measurements which have the power to transform:

  • The process of getting a lupus diagnosis;
  • How clinicians manage lupus treatment plans;
  • Measurement of treatment effectiveness; and
  • The development of new lupus treatment
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