A cure for rheumatoid arthritis on the horizon?
Written by Daniel P. Malito on March 11, 2014
I have been writing this blog for over four years now, much to my surprise, and I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. That being said, I have noticed as of late that more often than not, I write about something sad or maudlin, even though there is usually a message of hope or humor contained within. Well, I thought this week we could change things up and talk about some of the good things going on.
First and foremost, there was news this week that the cause of Rheumatoid Arthritis might have been discovered! Yes, I know we have been led down the primrose path many times before, but this time it really sounds like the scientists may be on to something. An international group of researchers in Japan at Osaka University have announced that they have found that people susceptible to Rheumatoid Arthritis developed the disease after a “cellular misfolded protein” was transported to the surface of the body’s cells without being properly processed. When this misfolded protein ended up on the surface of the molecules without being processed into a peptide, it resulted in the body misidentifying these cells as foreign antibodies and invading bacteria and viruses. Whoa, that’s a mouthful! Let me see if I can break it down.
I did a bit of research, and in layman’s terms, this means that the protein in question is not shaped properly. All of the body’s proteins take on a specific 3D shape in order to act something like a “key.” These protein “keys” fit perfectly into “locks” that are usually on the outside of the body’s cells. Once the body detects the correct key in the lock, the cell performs its assigned duty properly. Now, according to the Osaka researchers, people like me have a protein that so badly mangled that the body believes it is a virus or bacteria that needs to be destroyed. Unfortunately, the protein itself thinks it is perfectly healthy, and it does what all body protein “keys” do – it tries to attach itself to the “locks” on the outside of cells. When that happens, the body tries to destroy these mis-shapen protein “keys” and mistakes the cells they are attached to as foreign antibodies as well. Thus you have the reason the body is attacking its own joints in people with R.A. Or so the hypothesis goes.
The researchers claim that they can develop a medicine that deals with the mis-shaped protein, but that is years away at best. Assuming the their research is correct, though, this is a huge step towards the eradication of one of the most insidious and destructive autoimmune diseases out there. Good news for sure!
As if that wasn’t a good enough story, there was more autoimmune related good news this week. Scientists in Germany this week have discovered a molecule in the body that is a fundamental aggravating factor in autoimmune disease. Apparently, if B-lymphocytes lack the protein PTP1B, the cells will become hyperactive with stimulatory signals and can thus promote and autoimmune response. Once again, a bunch of scientific jargon, so let’s break it down.
Those of you who have had rheumatoid arthritis for years have probably heard about B-cells before. Even other disease like AIDS and cancer are related to B-cell activity, but for those who don’t know what B-cells are, let me explain. B-cells are one of the main molecules responsible for the human immune system. These cells are ultimately responsible for making the white blood cells that are so key in fighting off infection and disease. Unfortunately, in many types of arthritis and other autoimmune illnesses, these B-cells switch into high gear, and never turn off again. Well, this news from Germany claims that, once again, a certain protein is responsible for making the B-cells shift into overdrive, and when they deactivated this specific protein in mice, it resulted in the B-cells returning on their normal activity level. Until recently, it was thought that these molecules were the front lien of defense in the body, the immune system infantry if you will. Now, though, it is understood that they play a much bigger part in the immune system regulation on the whole, and this is leading to discoveries like the one made by these German researchers at the Max Planck Institute. Again, it won’t result in actual medication for years, but it is fantastic news, and it again points the finger at a protein causing the autoimmune diseases so many of us suffer with each and every day.
Research is fantastic, and also necessary to find a cure, but it isn’t the only avenue to fight arthritis with. Since the release of my book, So Young, I have received so many emails, messages, and calls to say how much people are res[ponding to my story. Not only that, but people are actually learning about the disease – things that they might never have otherwise known. It is an amazing thing that all of us have raised awareness about autoimmune disease so much that a book about the lowly life of a nobody with Rheumatoid Arthritis can reach such a wide audience, and I am truly touched. The work that everyone here at Creaky Joints and other organizations do to help bring our cause to the masses is hope-inspiring and essential. More good news, for sure.
So, it isn’t always gloom and doom for those of us with autoimmune disease, and there are certainly some fantastic discoveries on the horizon. Even if both of the studies above turn out to be false, the fact that people are studying autoimmune illness at all is a fantastic sign in and of itself. Twenty-five years ago when I was diagnosed, we barely had a name for the Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis I came down it. Now, to have two separate studies come out in the same week and simultaneously name the same type of molecule as a factor in rheumatoid arthritis is amazing. I fully expect that we will have a cure in another twenty-five years, and just maybe, in 50 years or so, no children will ever be born again having to suffer the horror of autoimmune disease. If I’m still alive then, we can rent a hover-car, take a ride to the ocean on Mars, and have ourselves a hologram party at the shore to celebrate the end of autoimmune disease.