Unexpected discovery could help rheumatoid arthritis patients

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) — People who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis may struggle with painful flare-ups.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine may have found an unexpected contributor to them, which points to a potential treatment for the autoimmune disorder.

According to a release, it may also allow the use of simple blood test to detect people are an elevated risk for developing the condition.

The release adds this discovery is among the first to come from UVA’s affiliation with Inova Health.

Researchers were looking to better understand what causes the inflammation associated with inflammatory arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis.

They found that deleting a particular gene, called ELMO1, alleviated the symptoms in mice.

The researchers were expecting this to increase the inflammation, not decrease it.
"This was a complete surprise to us initially," said Kodi Ravichandran, PhD, chairman of UVA’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology. "I love those kinds of results, because they tell us that, first, we did not fully comprehend the scientific problem when we began exploring it, and second, such unexpected results challenge us to think in a different way. Given that rheumatoid arthritis affects millions of people worldwide, we felt the need to understand this observation better."

The release says the researchers learned that ELMO1 promotes inflammation via a function in white blood cells called neutrophils, which is described as the body’s "first line of defense" because neutrophils sense and respond to potential threats.

Ravichandran says these are normally good for people because they fight off bacterial infections, but there are times when they can cause damage to tissues instead.

The researchers also learned there is a variation to the ELMO1 gene that can prompt neutrophils to become more mobile and potentially invade joints in greater numbers, thus causing inflammation.

Normally, doctors don’t try to block the effects of genes in people because they can play multiple and diverse roles in the body, but Ravichandran thinks this gene might be different.

"ELMO1 partners with very specific set of proteins only in the neutrophils but not in other cells types we tested," he said.

The release says blocking the gene in lab mice alleviated arthritis inflammation without causing other problems, and now researchers are looking to identify drugs that could inhibit the function of ELMO1.

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature Immunology.

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