PHILADELPHIA -- After many years of suffering with an autoimmune disease called lupus, Virginia Ladd realized that no one was focusing attention on things she had learned the hard way:
* That autoimmune disorders -- in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissue -- often run in families.
* That they mostly strike women.
* That they are as widespread and life-threatening as cancer and heart disease, yet many sufferers are initially dismissed as whiners and hypochondriacs.
"Unfortunately, physicians rarely take a family history of autoimmune diseases," said Ms. Ladd, 54. "I had an aunt who died with lupus at age 45. She was diagnosed through an autopsy. She had been sick on and off, but no doctor ever asked her about her family history."
An estimated 50 million Americans -- about three-fourths of them women -- suffer from nearly 80 known autoimmune diseases.
Among these are allergic asthma, insulin-dependent diabetes, rheumatic fever, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, pernicious anemia, vitiligo (the skin disease made famous by singer Michael Jackson) and Graves' disease (the overactive thyroid condition afflicting former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara).
Systemic lupus struck Ms. Ladd 32 years ago, periodically felling her with aches, fever, fatigue and breathing and digestive problems as it attacked her skin, joints and organs. Her experience led her to found the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association four years ago in her hometown of Detroit.
The association aims to raise awareness of autoimmune diseases, promote research and advocate for sufferers. The group will hold its educational forum for the first time today in Philadelphia.
"In a quiet but determined way, the association has instilled the thought that there are common threads," said Noel Rose, a pioneer in autoimmune research at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Scientists are now trying to unravel those threads. The National Institutes of Health will sponsor a conference on gender and autoimmunity this month. And research into genetic and hormonal influences is exploding. Thursday, a study in the journal Nature concluded that genetics plays a larger role than environmental factors in multiple sclerosis, a progressive disease the central nervous system.
The idea that the body's immune defense against infection and illness could be turned against the very tissues it was protecting once "seemed implausible, almost contradictory," the Hopkins researcher said.
Now, this self-destructive process is better understood.
The immune system can distinguish between the body's own tissue and foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. Through an intricate chain of reactions, the system produces antibodies that destroy the invaders.
The immune system also can make "autoantibodies" -- antibodies against its own tissue. This is not necessarily harmful.
Sometimes, however, this autoimmune response goes haywire, attacking healthy tissues or interfering with organ function.
The mechanisms aren't completely understood, but both genetics and environment apparently play roles. Scientists have identified a group of genes, found in about 20 percent of people, that seems to increase susceptibility to autoimmune diseases.