Dr Halima Moncrieffe is an Assistant Professor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, ranked top 3 in the USA, where she combines genomics with immunology to understand medication response and disease etiology. Halima is an award-winning immunologist whose ultimate goal is to move towards a cure for Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, so children can live pain-free and to their full potential.
FLG: Can you introduce yourself and your work?
I am an Assistant Professor in the Center for Autoimmune Genomics & Etiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. I lead scientific research to better understand the mechanisms that lead to autoimmune diseases like lupus and arthritis in children. We focus on functional genomics approaches to understand how allelic variation leads to divergent functional consequences. I am motivated to understand what causes autoimmune disease so we can find new and more effective therapies. In our work on precision medicine, I have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across the USA, Canada, and Italy to better predict which patients will respond well to medication.
FLG: What motivated you to pursue a career in this field?
From an early age, I saw the pain caused by autoimmune disease. I knew I wanted to understand more about these conditions. How could the life-saving immune system, which is critical in preventing infection, lead to such destructive disease? Doing this work, there are times when you see data that reveals something previously unrecorded about the immune system. That is an incredible experience! This career provides the opportunity to ultimately help alleviate the suffering endured by countless patients and their families.
FLG: Why has been it been difficult to understand the mechanisms behind autoimmune diseases and develop treatments?
There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases. It can be difficult to diagnose patients with an autoimmune disease and it is a huge challenge to understand the genetic and environmental triggers. Disease heterogeneity, person-to-person variation, in the symptoms and causes make finding common targets difficult. When a potential treatment is available, it may only work for a subset of patients. Finding the right treatment for the right group of patients, every time, is a big goal in the field and there are many dedicated scientists working to do just that.
FLG: Do you see any future potential developments that may affect the success of finding treatments for autoimmune diseases?
Technological advances have made it possible to understand complex genomic architecture not only in a drop of blood, but at the level of a single cell. To not just understand the capacity of what each cell is doing singly, but as part of a highly dynamic environment is the direction of the field. We are at the frontier of combining multiple layers of data towards novel understanding: genomic, transcriptomic, epigenomic, proteomic, and viral, bacterial and wider environmental exposure. The capacity to efficiently combine these datasets over time in health, disease, on and off medication will positively impact the search for treatments. Biorepositories from large numbers of people who are healthy but go onto develop disease will provide a powerful opportunity to identify individuals at risk of disease. We need efficient transfer from the clinic, to the research bench, through informatics and data interpretation, into drug discovery, clinical trials and ideally back to the patient. To do this we need continued investment in STEM research. We also need to continue to provide environments that attract upcoming scientists for fulfilling careers where they can contribute their talents along this pipeline and accelerate progress.
FLG: Why did you decide to participate at the Festival of Genomics this year?
The Festival of Genomics is the place to see the incredible progress in genomics that integrates the National Health Service, researchers, industry, and government. I trained in London and FoG was a unique opportunity to meet many former colleagues and extend my network with motivated leaders in the genomics field. Thanks to the organizers for the opportunity to participate and share our research.