Why Autoimmune Diseases Cause the Body to Attack Itself

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iStock

A new study published in the journal Cell explores the cellular "runaway train" that allows lupus and other autoimmune diseases to spread throughout the body.

Autoimmune disease is exactly what it sounds like—the body mistakenly fighting itself. This attack may take the form of type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or lupus, among others. But what begins as a local problem often eventually goes global.

"Once your body's tolerance for its own tissues is lost, the chain reaction is like a runaway train," co-author Michael Carroll of Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School said in a statement.

The disease tricks the body into expanding its attack. In a process called epitope spreading, autoantibodies target more and more tissues and organ systems over time, causing new symptoms like joint pain, kidney damage, and severe skin rashes.

To find out how it happens, Carroll and his colleagues zoomed way, way in to examine the progression of lupus in the tissues of lab mice.

"Lupus is known as 'the great imitator' because the disease can have so many different clinical presentations resembling other common conditions," first author Søren Degn, of Boston Children's Hospital and Aarhus University, said in the statement.

"It's a multiorgan disease with a plethora of potential antigenic targets, tissues affected and 'immune players' involved. Lupus is considered a prototypic autoimmune disease, which is why it's so interesting to study."

The researchers used what's called a confetti technique, marking different types of diseased B cells with different colors, then watching the colored dots multiply, scatter, and spread.

Graphic of multicolored autoantibodies
Immune cells called B cells battle each other to produce the best antibody. Here, green represents the B cells that produce the "winning" antibody and stamp out competing B cells (other colors).
Carroll Lab/Boston Children's Hospital

The confetti images revealed a microscopic soap opera, as the different colors struggled for dominance and power. As time went on, the makeup of the confetti shifted. One color, or cell type, had won.

Those toxic cells then began converting their neighbors.

"Over time, the B cells that initially produce the 'winning' autoantibodies begin to recruit other B cells to produce additional damaging autoantibodies—just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water," Degn said.

The researchers were surprised but excited by their results, which they believe could someday lead to new types of treatment.

"Blocking germinal centers in the midst of an autoimmune response could potentially block the epitope-spreading process," Carroll said. "If you could stop the adaptive immune system for a transient amount of time, it might allow the body to reset its immune responses and shut off the autoreactivity."

What You Need to Know About Acute Flaccid Myelitis, the Polio-Like Disease That's Spreading in Kids

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iStock.com/Sasiistock

The rapid spread of a polio-like disease across the U.S. is causing concern within the medical community. Since the start of 2018, there have been 127 reported cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), with 62 of those cases confirmed in 22 states, NBC reports. Unlike polio, there's no vaccine for AFM, and doctors aren't entirely sure what causes it or how it spreads. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging people to educate themselves on the condition.

AFM is a disease that attacks the gray matter of the victim's spinal cord, which can cause serious damage to the central nervous system. Symptoms like muscle weakness, facial drooping, limb paralysis, and trouble swallowing or slurred speech can manifest quickly and require immediate medical attention. There is no specific way to treat the disease or reverse its effects, but physical therapy can help some victims regain mobility.

The condition usually develops following a viral infection, such as enterovirus and West Nile virus, but there's no one virus is linked to AFM. Environmental toxins and autoimmune diseases can also trigger it.

Acute flaccid myelitis has been on the rise since 2014, and the CDC expects to see a higher-than-average number of cases this year. The department isn't sure of what's causing the spike, but even with incidents on the rise, the disease is still incredibly rare. It affects mostly children under age 19, and kids younger than 4 account for most of the cases. The chances of a kid contracting the infection in the U.S. are less than one in 1 million.

To protect yourself and your children against AFM, the CDC recommends following general good health practices. Stay up-to-date on your vaccines, avoid mosquitos, and wash your hands regularly and thoroughly to ward off viruses.

[h/t NBC]

How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.

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