Certain families produce higher levels of a protein that may prime the body’s immune system to attack itself, according to a new study from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. The findings could lead to new methods of predicting who may be at risk to develop the disease lupus.
The scientists hypothesize that the protein molecule, known as interferon-alpha, influences the immune system’s threshold. With the wrong environmental stimulus—for example, a certain virus—the interferon-alpha accompanies the “autoimmune” response that is one of the hallmarks of lupus: The body turns the weapons of its own immune system against itself.
Using blood samples from OMRF’s Lupus Family Registry and Repository and another repository, rheumatologists compared 266 patients with lupus with 405 of their healthy relatives. The scientists found that not only did lupus patients have high levels of interferon-alpha, but so did many of their healthy relatives.
“Many family members who did not suffer from lupus showed high levels of interferon-alpha,” said OMRF’s John Harley, M.D, Ph.D., who co-authored the study. “This suggests that genetic or environmental factors play an important role in lupus.”
The scientists now are working to identify the other players that are involved in the progression of lupus. They hope that as they know more, they may be able to identify those at high risk and diagnose the condition early enough to intervene and reverse the disease. Observational and genetic studies of families with high levels of interferon-alpha will also help them to pinpoint the other factors, including the relevant genetic variations that determine why one family member develops the disease while another doesn’t.
“We hope to use interferon-alpha levels to predict who might be at risk to develop this disease,” said Harley. “We’re not there yet, but the results of this study are encouraging.”
The study, which is available online in advance of print, will appear in the September issue of Genes and Immunity. The research was led by Mary K. Crow, M.D., and Timothy Niewold, M.D., at the Hospital for Special Surgery and funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Alliance for Lupus Research, the Lupus Research Institute and the Mary Kirkland Center for Lupus Research at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Lupus occurs when the body confuses pieces of itself for foreign invaders like germs. It most commonly strikes the skin, joints, blood and kidneys, although it can attack any part of the body. The disease, which can be fatal, affects an estimated 1.4 million Americans, predominantly women.
OMRF (omrf.org) is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and developing more effective treatments for human disease. Chartered in 1946, its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease.