New Discoveries on Environmental Triggers of Lupus

Lupus Research Institute investigators connect bacteria, viruses, sunlight, and more to disease start and flare

Could bacteria be the culprit in triggering lupus?

Dr. Jochen Mattner thinks so. He discovered a bacterial trigger of autoimmune liver disease that has implications for lupus. With funding from the Lupus Research Institute, the Cincinnati Children's Hospital doctor helped to confirm a long-held suspicion that certain bacterial or viral infections can elicit strong immune responses that prompt autoimmune illnesses such as lupus. Dr. Mattner reported in May's Cell Host & Microbe that the common gut bacterium Novosphingobium triggers autoimmune liver disease in mice.

Dr. Mattner and co-authors illustrate how the bacterium, due to its unique cell wall antigens, activates specialized immune system white blood cells that provide help for autoreactive B cells. When extended to humans, the findings imply that straightforward antibiotic treatments might prevent or halt the autoimmune process in genetically susceptible individuals.

How does sunlight trigger lupus?

Dr. Vicki Kelley at Brigham and Women's Hospital was awarded Lupus Research Institute funding to explore her novel idea on exactly HOW sunlight exposure triggers skin and systemic lupus. She has early evidence that ultraviolet light (UVB) stimulates the skin to produce a factor that recruits white blood cells. Using specially developed animal models, Dr. Kelley will examine whether UVB-induced production of this factor in the skin leads to lupus.

Are common germs triggering lupus?

They might be.

Dr. Marko Radic at the University of Tennessee has discovered that a bacterial or viral infection can trigger chemical modifications to proteins on immune system cells that in turn prompt autoimmune assaults. Published in February's Journal of Immunology, the discovery could explain why autoimmune diseases often first appear following an infection.

How about chronic viral infections?

It's possible, according to Dr. Zhixin (Jason) Zhang at the University of Alabama, who now has 5 years of funding from the National Institute of Health to take his Lupus Research Institute-funded breakthrough to the next level.

Studies in Dr. Zhang's Birmingham laboratory indicate that almost half of the DNA-binding antibodies in lupus are byproducts of antibody editing, which is also seen in different types of chronic viral infections. Dr. Zhang will now examine if excessive editing of the antibody-encoding genes is indeed taking place in people with lupus.

Note: Not only would this research likely not have gotten off the ground if the Lupus Research Institute hadn't taken a chance, but Dr. Zhang's research wouldn't have made it to the very top of the National Institutes of Health's grant application ranking list! Congratulations, Dr. Zhang!