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Are women more likely to develop autoimmune diseases? Study points to a gene that says “yes”

Autoimmune diseases can strike anyone, but they are more prevalent in women than men. Some, like lupus, appear disproportionately high among women, and scientists weren’t sure why until a recent study provided some new clues.

Researchers from the University of Michigan have demonstrated that women have more of a molecular switch known as VGLL3 in their skin cells than men do. This is significant because they’ve linked an excess of VGLL3 to an autoimmune response that is essentially “self-attacking” and affects not just the skin but also internal organs.

The researchers found that having extra VGLL3 can change the expression levels of several genes that play a vital role in the immune system, many of which are involved in autoimmune illnesses like lupus.

In fact, the changes in these gene expressions led to a lupus-like illness in studies involving mice. Immune cells started to fill the animals’ lymph nodes and skin, and their skin became raw and scaly. They also started producing antibodies against their body’s own tissues, including the same ones that destroy the kidneys of people with lupus.

Lots of questions remain

The researchers aren’t yet sure why female skin cells have more VGLL3 than those of men. One possible explanation is that females have developed stronger immune systems over time to help fight off infections and that this comes with the downside of a greater risk of autoimmune disease should the body mistake itself for an invader.

They’re also not sure what could spur extra VGLL3 activity. It’s worth noting, however, that the same VGLL3 pathway seen in women is activated in men who have lupus.

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Their discovery could lead to better and safer therapies for people who suffer from lupus and similar conditions. Current therapies, such as steroids, cause dangerous side effects that range from a greater risk of infection to cancer.

Could new therapies for lupus be right around the corner?

This finding could be good news for the 1.5 million Americans and 5 million people worldwide who suffer from lupus. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, the illness mostly affects women who are of childbearing age, with 90 percent of sufferers being women. It’s also more prevalent among women of color, with Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans noting a prevalence that is two to three times greater than Caucasian women.

Symptoms include extreme fatigue, pain, hair loss, physical impairment, and cognitive problems. For some people, there might not be any visible symptoms, while others could suffer significant problems like painful joints, disfiguring rashes, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Unfortunately, diagnosis can be tricky as its symptoms can come and go or change over time, and they also mimic those of other illnesses. That’s why it takes six years on average for people to be diagnosed, with many reporting incorrect diagnoses prior to being officially diagnosed with lupus.

Although most people with lupus can enjoy a normal lifespan, the current treatments leave a lot to be desired, and as many as 15 percent of sufferers may die prematurely because of complications from the illness. This research is providing new hope for lupus sufferers, and scientists are currently recruiting lupus patients to take part in a study exploring how this knowledge could help shape future treatments for lupus that are safer and more effective.

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