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Scientists Search For Rheumatoid Arthritis Genes

Are some people more prone to developing rheumatoid arthritis? Researchers are mapping the genes that will answer that question.

Genetic Clues to Rheumatoid Arthritis continued...

His team also found that variants of two other genes -- TRAF1 and C5 -- might also be associated with an increased risk for RA. And in 2004, the same team reported that a gene called PTPN2 confers a twofold risk for RA and a number of other autoimmune diseases.

In the future, genetic research may allow doctors to better pinpoint those at higher risk of developing complications from autoimmune diseases. Looking into his crystal ball, Gregersen says that “we will find that some of the genes predispose people to particular disease manifestations.” This information will help physicians better predict the course of a disease and improve treatments.

Toward Earlier Diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis

But that’s not all. This research will allow doctors to detect diseases ahead of time -- before symptoms begin. “For RA, there are autoantibodies that appear years before the development of any symptoms. And we know that if you have those antibodies, you are at increased risk of developing RA. But this is still not 100% predictive,” Gregersen says.

Looking at a person’s genetic blueprint can help eliminate some of the question marks. “This information can help us decide who we should treat earlier,” he says.

“We could develop some type of algorithm that says this person has a high probability of developing RA and we should treat them before they develop symptoms.” That’s just how John H. Klippel, MD, the president and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation, based in Atlanta, envisions it. “A combination of a known family history of RA, a genetic profile, and a blood marker could be used to closely monitor people, and at some point we could decide to intervene before symptoms ever occur,” he says.

Genetics will also help doctors decide which RA drugs to use. A genetic analysis could eliminate the guesswork.

“I think that genetics is clearly paving the way toward personalized medicine for autoimmune disorders,” Gregersen says. He predicts the first use of his genetic research in RA will be in determining which drugs work best in individual patients.

But, he adds, it certainly won’t be the last application -- encouraging news for the millions who have RA or may develop it in the future. 

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Reviewed on March 31, 2008

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