Women are nine times more likely to get lupus than men, and a discovery by an OMRF scientist might provide a clue as to why.
A paper in the journal Blood by OMRF’s Susan Kovats, Ph.D., describes a role estrogen plays in the development of certain immune cells during inflammation. That inflammation, which is like that caused by infection or tissue damage, plays a key role in the development of the disease lupus.
In lupus, the body’s immune system mistakes its own tissue for foreign invaders, inadvertently harming that which it seeks to protect. Lupus can affect any part of the body, but its most common targets are the skin, joints, blood and kidneys.
“Normally, cells in the immune system called dendritic cells sense the presence of pathogens and activate the body’s immune response to fight illness,” said Kovats. “In a patient with lupus, however, those same cells can be part of a vicious cycle that perpetuates disease.”
For lupus patients, when tissue damage is sensed by dendritic cells, they activate other immune cells that cause more tissue damage. Estrogen seems to act as a sort of fertilizer, causing the cells to develop at faster clip.
“What we found is that estrogen is directly involved in increasing dendritic cell numbers during inflammation,” said Kovats, an assistant member of OMRF’s Arthritis and Immunology Research Program. “Increased numbers of these cells are associated with autoimmunity,” conditions like lupus in which the body attacks its own tissues and cells. “Our results could help explain why women, who have much more estrogen than men, are more likely to develop lupus.”
Researchers already know that mice that can’t respond to estrogen are protected from lupus, Kovats said, so the next step in the research is to prove the link between estrogen and dendritic cell development in mice with lupus.
OMRF researcher Esther Carreras, Ph.D., and senior research assistant Sean Turner also contributed to the paper.
The research was funded by grants from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the National Center for Research Resources.