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Student leads campaign for autoimmune disease awareness

About 80 percent of Americans can’t name one autoimmune disease, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. Lilly Stairs, AMD’15, is trying to change that.

The Northeastern senior launched the 50 cents for 50 million campaign with the mission to spread the stories of the millions of people fighting autoimmune diseases and to encourage people to donate 50 cents toward finding a cure. She serves as the campaign’s “chief immunity officer.”

The cause is a deeply personal one for Stairs. During her second year at Northeastern, she was diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases: psoriatic arthritis, which causes joint pain and inflammation, and Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract.

Despite this devastating news, Stairs knew she wanted to help others with autoimmune diseases. “Yes, I had these terrible experiences, but I feel blessed that I can now move forward with my life and be truly passionate about the work that I am doing,” said Stairs, a fifth-year communication studies major in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

Early on in her research she noted a clear lack of awareness about autoimmune diseases, and the awareness initiatives she did find only focused on specific diseases—such as Crohn’s, Celiac, and Lupus—rather than on autoimmune diseases as a whole.

“Nobody talks about autoimmune diseases,” Stairs said. “I hadn’t even heard of Crohn’s prior to my diagnosis. We need to start thinking about autoimmune diseases as an umbrella because if we do, people are going to start to understand the magnitude of it.”

Through the campaign Stairs and her team—which includes seven other Northeastern students—secured a sponsorship with Scion, a subsidiary of Toyota. As part of the agreement, 50for50 was provided with a car for two weeks that the team used to travel around the Boston area to meet with children with autoimmune diseases and their families.

“It was definitely the most rewarding thing we have done,” Stairs said. “There are a lot of people out there looking for a voice and you can see their sense of relief when they talk to us.”

The campaign culminates on Wednesday, which marks Boston’s inaugural Autoimmune Disease Awareness Day. 50for50 will host a comedy show, “Laugh for Immunity,” at 7 p.m. at Laugh Boston, located in the city’s Seaport District. The campaign will also debut a new awareness video at the event, half the ticket sales for which will benefit the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

Stairs noted that she hadn’t considered entering the patient advocacy field before this experience, adding that she is incredibly grateful for all the opportunities she’s received at Northeastern to pursue this career plan.

She credits two Northeastern experiences in particular for preparing her to run 50for50: an advocacy writing service-learning course and her co-op at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the state’s biotechnology trade organization. On that co-op, she developed a social media and website content communications plan for MassBio’s education foundation, MassBioEd.

“The resources that I’ve had at Northeastern have been exceptional,” said Stairs, who will be working at MassBio full time following graduation this spring.

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