Vitiligo is a chronic condition in which melanocytes (the cells that make pigment) in the skin are destroyed. As a result, white patches appear on the skin in different parts of the body. Similar patches also appear on both the mucous membranes (tissues that line the inside of the mouth and nose), and perhaps in the retina (inner layer of the eyeball). The hair that grows on areas affected by vitiligo sometimes turns white.
The researchers began a search for genes involved in vitiligo almost a decade ago with the help of the Vitiligo Society in the United Kingdom. “In the beginning we were looking for multiple family members with vitiligo,” says Richard Spritz, M.D., director of the Human Medical Genetics Program at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center and lead investigator for the study. The researchers sent a questionnaire to members of the society, asking them about their own vitiligo and whether other family members were affected. As part of the questionnaire, they also asked about other autoimmune diseases. What they learned was that vitiligo was “very highly associated” with a number of other autoimmune diseases, mostly thyroid disease, but also pernicious anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, lupus, Addison’s disease, and adult-onset autoimmune diabetes.
That finding prompted the researchers to study families with multiple affected members and to look for similarities in genes among those who were affected. By searching the genome, they discovered a gene, NALP1, that was key to predisposing people to vitiligo and other autoimmune diseases, particularly autoimmune thyroid disease, says Dr. Spritz. “We know that about 20 percent of people with vitiligo also get autoimmune thyroid disease, and this gene may be involved in mediating both of those,” he says.
Dr. Spritz says the implications of this finding are exciting. The identified gene controls part of what is called the innate immune system, which is our body’s first defense against infection, he says. “When we are attacked by viruses or bacteria, the innate immune system stimulates the inflammatory pathways and calls the rest of the immune system to action. NALP1 is probably a receptor for bacterial or viral signals. We don’t know what these signals are, but now that we know what the gene is, we can use that knowledge to search for the signals that trigger autoimmune disease.”
“All autoimmune diseases involve the interaction of multiple genes and environmental triggers,” he continues. “You are born with your genes, but you are not born with these diseases. Something happens. We don’t know what the triggers are that start these diseases, but if we did, maybe we could avoid them or even block the process. In fact, it may even be possible to actually stop the autoimmune disease,” he says.
The most immediate application of this research might be for the disease that began the research: vitiligo. Doctors usually treat vitiligo with ultraviolet (UV) light to stimulate skin repigmentation. Scientists also know that there is one medication available (approved for treating rheumatoid arthritis) that blocks an inflammatory pathway thought to be controlled by NALP1. The possibility of combining a drug with UV light to improve vitiligo treatment is intriguing, and Dr. Spritz is now interested in finding out more about how the medication might affect people with vitiligo.
NIAMS Director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., calls the discovery of the NALP1-autoimmunity connection an important advance in the understanding of autoimmune diseases that collectively affect an estimated 15 million to 25 million Americans. “The more we understand about these diseases, including the genes that predispose to them and the environmental factors that trigger them, the closer we come to better treatments and even preventive measures,” he says.
Additional support for this research was provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the U.K. Vitiligo Society and the National Vitiligo Foundation.
The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health, is to support research into the causes, treatment and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. For more information about NIAMS, call the information clearinghouse at (301) 495-4484 or (877) 22-NIAMS (free call) or visit the NIAMS Web site at http://www.niams.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
Switch-in-a-cell electrifies life
18.12.2018 | Rice University
Plant biologists identify mechanism behind transition from insect to wind pollination
18.12.2018 | University of Toronto
Researchers from the University of Basel have reported a new method that allows the physical state of just a few atoms or molecules within a network to be controlled. It is based on the spontaneous self-organization of molecules into extensive networks with pores about one nanometer in size. In the journal ‘small’, the physicists reported on their investigations, which could be of particular importance for the development of new storage devices.
Around the world, researchers are attempting to shrink data storage devices to achieve as large a storage capacity in as small a space as possible. In almost...
The more objects we make "smart," from watches to entire buildings, the greater the need for these devices to store and retrieve massive amounts of data quickly without consuming too much power.
Millions of new memory cells could be part of a computer chip and provide that speed and energy savings, thanks to the discovery of a previously unobserved...
What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes - while significantly reducing your...
A widely used diabetes medication combined with an antihypertensive drug specifically inhibits tumor growth – this was discovered by researchers from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum two years ago. In a follow-up study, recently published in “Cell Reports”, the scientists report that this drug cocktail induces cancer cell death by switching off their energy supply.
The widely used anti-diabetes drug metformin not only reduces blood sugar but also has an anti-cancer effect. However, the metformin dose commonly used in the...
A research team from the University of Zurich has developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is particularly useful when searching for victims of natural disasters.
Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire is exactly the kind of job that human rescuers would like drones to do for them. A flying...
12.12.2018 | Event News
10.12.2018 | Event News
06.12.2018 | Event News
18.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
18.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
18.12.2018 | Materials Sciences