Alabama researchers have discovered an immune protein that influences autoimmune diseases like lupus. They hope their discovery will ultimately result in new treatments for that illness and other autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

A team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) found a new mutation of an immune protein known as an Fc receptor, according to Medical News Today. Their findings suggest that it could help researchers come up with more personalized treatments for patients with autoimmune disorders.

Prior to this research, scientists believed Fc receptors only had the capacity of shutting down the production of antibodies in the human body. However, they discovered that around 15 percent of individuals globally have a mutated Fc receptor that also has the capability of activating the production of antibodies, which attack bacteria. In lupus patients, these receptors create an overabundance of antibodies, which means healthy cells come under attack.

Around 1.5 million Americans and 5 million individuals worldwide suffer from one of several types of lupus, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. While the disorder can strike people at any age, most develop the illness when they're between 15 and 44. Nine of every 10 patients are female. About 70 percent of sufferers have the systemic form.

In lupus patients, the immune system goes haywire and starts to attack healthy cells. The resulting damage typically affects joints, kidneys, heart, skin, blood vessels, lungs, and the brain, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases says.

One of the frustrating aspects of treating lupus patients is the variation of symptoms and the corresponding need for personalized treatments. A variety of medical specialists see patients to try to prevent flares, treat them when they do occur, and reduce physical damage.

Among the most common symptoms are muscle pain, hair loss, joint swelling or pain, red rashes -- typically on the face, sun sensitivity, and mouth ulcers. Patients also frequently suffer from fever without a known cause, chest pain with a deep breath, swelling in their legs or around their eyes, and fingers or toes that are purple or pale.

Having the ability to identify the Fc receptor mutation should allow medical professionals to tailor treatments to each patient and to spot early signs of an autoimmune disorder. According to UAB Center for Clinical and Translational Science director Dr. Robert Kimberly, co-author of the findings from the study, a secondary benefit could be potential savings of time and money for pharmaceutical companies.

Around a third of patients who suffer from autoimmune diseases fail to respond to antibody-based treatment, which is the traditional way of approaching these disorders. UAB researchers say that their discovery has caused the basis of the biology behind these therapies to become out of date.

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    January 2014