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Environmental Link to Lupus Found

Animal study reveals mineral oil aggravates immune disorder

MONDAY, Aug. 5, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- In a study that may shed some light on the environmental triggers of auto-immune disorders, researchers have found that genetically modified mice with lupus get sharply worse when exposed to a constituent of mineral oil.

The chemical, called pristane, had previously been shown to cause the debilitating disease in healthy rodents. Yet in people, substances occasionally known to bring on lupus -- from antibiotics to drugs that treat high blood pressure -- don't generally make it worse in those already diagnosed with the condition.

So the new findings, reported this month in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, were somewhat surprising, said Dr. Westley Reeves, an immune system expert at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville and the leader of the multi-center research effort.

Reeves said the key to the discovery appears to be a group of inflammatory proteins called cytokines. These proteins, and especially interleukin-12, were elevated in mutant mice with the lupus-like ailment when the animals were injected with pristane.

Normally, animals injected with the oil derivative can be followed for six months or so. But those with the immune disorder suffered massive kidney damage before half that long. They also developed a slew of proteins, called antibodies, to their own genetic material, though the significance of that surge isn't clear, Reeves said.

Roughly half a million Americans suffer from lupus, but women with the disease outnumber men by about 9 to 1. The condition, which is most common in black women, is marked by many symptoms, ranging from skin rashes and arthritis to sun sensitivity and kidney disease. Lupus typically occurs between the ages of 15 and 45, prompting some experts to believe that female reproductive hormones might be involved in its onset.

Genes, stress and environmental factors all have been tied to lupus flare-ups, though researchers aren't sure in what proportions. Symptoms can be controlled by a variety of therapies, including steroids and even drugs that treat malaria.

Reeves and his colleagues are intrigued by the anti-malarial therapies, he says, because they reduce the activity of cytokines. His group is now exploring whether this effect jibes with their latest findings.

They are also looking at whether viruses and substances that trigger cytokine production in humans may play a role in either the appearance or aggravation of lupus.

Dr. Judith James, a lupus expert at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, said the latest work might prove valuable to the study of the condition in people.

But she cautioned that to date, the gap between animal models and the human form of the disease has been wide.

"We have no idea how this will be applicable" to patients, James said.

What To Do

For more on lupus, try the Lupus Foundation of America or MEDLINEplus.

SOURCES: Westley Reeves, M.D., professor of medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville; Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, University of Oklahoma; August 2002 Arthritis & Rheumatism
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