Research breaks ground on why lupus is so hard to treat

Taking the right genetic approach to medicine can change many diseases for the better.

That’s the case with lupus, a disease that is affected by both genetics and the environment. In the 1970s, scientists noticed that research from the past century had largely stopped covering the intergenerational impact of environmental factors, particularly exposure to compounds like benzene and dioxin, in lupus patients.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison took a break from studying genetics to take up the task of studying environmental factors that may contribute to lupus. They have reported their results this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine. They theorized that by studying the intergenerational role of environmental contaminants, which affects one’s health in ways that can be drastically different from one generation to the next, they could potentially prove a new medical treatment to potentially help millions of people.

Researchers obtained microorganisms from several unique donor species, like cockroaches, yeast, and black-eyed peas, and developed genetic tools that could map their genetic makeup. The genes were then used to manipulate common genetic sequences that humans often lack, helping them design lupus genes that only people who had lupus have.

The new genes, ultimately, could potentially diagnose and treat lupus, and hopefully prevent the disease from setting in in the first place.

While the preliminary findings of the project are promising, it is still early and some skeptics have questioned the study’s methods. According to a study in Nature, one of the possible problems with the approach is that the samples were from animals that lacked the genetic risk factor (disproportionate to people) that people are at risk for: exposure to pesticides. Although the researchers wrote that they’ve doubled down on their study, it is still unclear whether the discoveries will be replicable in the future and how well the genetic pathway could eventually lead to treatments.

Nonetheless, what’s exciting about the project is not just the research it’s created in creating human and animal lupus genes, but the fact that researchers have implemented new genetic science to study the environmental tolls of lupus, rather than just the genetics.

See more of the 2018 Science Translational Medicine Awards’ posts here.

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