Investigators with the National Institutes of Health have discovered the genomic switches of a blood cell key to regulating the human immune system. The findings, published in Nature today, open the door to new research and development in drugs and personalized medicine to help those with autoimmune disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease or rheumatoid arthritis. “We now know more about the genetics of autoimmune diseases,” said NIAMS Director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D. “Knowledge of the genetic risk factors helps us assess a person’s susceptibility to disease. With further research on the associated biological mechanisms, it could eventually enable physicians to tailor treatments to each individual.”
Identifying autoimmune disease susceptibility genes can be a challenge because in most cases a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors is involved. Genetic studies have shown that people with autoimmune diseases possess unique genetic variants, but most of the alterations are found in regions of the DNA that do not carry genes. Scientists have suspected that the variants are in DNA elements called enhancers, which act like switches to control gene activities.
The senior author of the paper, John J. O’Shea, M.D., is the scientific director at NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. The lead author, Golnaz Vahedi, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. O’Shea’s lab in the Molecular Immunology and Inflammation Branch. The study was performed in collaboration with investigators led by NIH Director, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., in the Medical Genomics and Metabolic Genetics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute.