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Gene discovered to aid in autoimmune disease

Category: Autoimmune Diseases

Researchers from the Stanford University Medical Center have recently discovered that a gene generally considered to be dead reactivates when inflammation occurs in the body. These findings may shed some light on how anti-inflammatory steroid drugs work, and they have the potential to lead to improved anti-inflammatory treatment.

"Inflammation tells your body something is wrong," said Howard Chang, senior author of the study. "But after it does its job of alerting immune cells to a viral or bacterial infection or spurring them to remove debris from a wound site, it has to get turned off before it causes harm to healthy tissue."

The researchers suspect that this revived gene, known as Lethe, does just that. The report noted that inflammation is a key player in diseases, especially those that are autoimmune-, heart- and neurodegenerative​-related as well as cancer. Traditional treatments, which consist of anti-inflammatory steroids, target the underlying cause of the inflammation.

According to the study, Lethe came back to life, so to speak, after the master regulator of inflammation inside of cells (NF-kappa-B) was activated. The protein kept NF-kappa-B from stimulating the pro-inflammatory genes that cause inflammation. Additionally, the researchers found that Lethe was particularly effective when dexamethasone was used. Dexamethasone is commonly prescribed to fight inflammation, and illicit a response in Lethe that vitamin D, estrogen and male steroid hormones failed to replicate.

"We're wondering whether there might be ways to artificially raise Lethe levels without steroids," said Chang. "These drugs have potentially deleterious side effects such as elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, thinning of bones and general suppression of the immune system."

What does inflammation have to do with autoimmune disease?
According to the National Institutes of Health, inflammation is the typical tell-tale sign of an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases occur when your body attacks healthy cells and tissues in your body. They are characterized by flare-ups and remissions, in which inflammation is aggravated or recedes, respectively. Because there are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases, doctors experience difficulties when trying to diagnose them, especially because many of the diseases share symptoms.

Lab tests are necessary to definitively diagnose an autoimmune disorder and begin treatment. The NIH recommends that individuals consider getting a test if they experience fatigue, muscle aches or a low fever consistently. Inflammation is characterized by redness, pain, heat and swelling.

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