On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Autoimmunity

Julia Greenstein, Ph.D., Vice President, Research Strategy, JDRF


When you have an autoimmune disease, it can feel like your body is turning against you. Autoimmune diseases develop when your immune system mistakenly attacks part of your body, causing damage, inflammation and loss of a specific normal function. There are at least 80 different autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and type 1 diabetes (T1D).

About 24 million people in the United States (7 percent of the population) are affected by them, and about 6 million people have multiple autoimmune diseases. This may be because similar processes are involved in different autoimmune diseases. If we could find ways of targeting these processes, could they work like master keys to unlock therapies for multiple autoimmune diseases? JDRF is driving innovative research to answer this tantalizing question-and spearheading a whole new approach to autoimmune disease research. How? By identifying elements of the disease process that are shared between different autoimmune diseases and eventually using them to control or reverse the body's attack on itself.

We do this by funding individual investigators at academic institutions and companies and networks like TrialNet and the Immune Tolerance Network. The network combines state-of-the-art research facilities with pre-eminent experts on autoimmunity, allergy and transplantation-the perfect ingredients for the cutting-edge, collaborative studies needed to power discovery of therapies that can alter the course of autoimmune disease. We're pursuing combination therapies, a new frontier in immune research. These strategies are designed to tackle autoimmune disease on multiple fronts simultaneously or sequentially to maximize impact. We are challenging top scientists to solve the puzzle of autoimmunity and we won't stop until we get there.

Her mission has always been to get back on her bike. As of February 2018, the 26-year-old is ranked in the top 20 of the 336 female sprinters in the world.

Marquardt, who was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was six, started cycling when she was a kid. She loved being outdoors and soon she realized her passion for cycling was more than a hobby. She started to race around the country and eventually the world.

“It’s always been there, that competitive drive,” says Marquardt, who’s competitive with herself. “I’ve always wanted to do better than I could have the last time and beat my time.”

A shocking diagnosis

While racing with the German national team, Marquardt took a routine physical and found out she had diabetes.

[A doctor] “told me I’d never be able to compete at a high level,” she says. “I believed it for a moment and I just knew I wanted to get back on my bike because that’s what I love to do.”

Marquardt was in the hospital for two weeks getting testing, and meeting with endocrinologists and nutritionists.

At the time, the cyclist didn’t know of any other athlete with Type 1 diabetes but she was determined to stay on track for her health and her sport.

Overcoming challenges

Nowadays, Marquardt, who spends a lot of time in the gym, as well as on her bike, knows lots of athletes with the disease. She’s racing with Team Novo Nordisk, a global all-diabetes professional cycling team, which is dubbed “Team Type 1.”

“It should never stop you,” says the USA Cycling Olympic hopeful with for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

Marquardt gets inspiration from her fans and they inspire her too. “I got this really cool note and it really made me cry because it was super cute,” she says, explaining a girl with T1D sent her a card that read, “I don’t really believe in superheroes, but you’re my superhero.” Marquardt keeps that card and a few others in her backpack as good luck charms.

The toughest part for the cycling star is adjusting to the inconsistent schedules she has while traveling for her sport.

“Each day is different,” says Marquardt, who wears a glucose monitor to keep tabs on her blood sugar and makes sure she gets proper rest and eats healthy, especially while traveling.

“If I’m happy, I race my bike really well.”