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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
Arthritis cause 'identified'
Rheumatoid arthritis affects thousands
Rheumatoid arthritis affects thousands
Scientists claim to have discovered a cause for the debilitating condition rheumatoid arthritis.

US researchers suggest it could be because the body stops being able to deal with naturally occurring carbohydrates properly.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects around 387,000 people in the UK, is characterised by inflamed joints and can lead to severe damage.

There have been advances in the treatment of RA, but less is known about potential causes.


It is difficult to distinguish what is cause and effect when it comes to looking at the autoimmune responses in patients with rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis Research Campaign spokeswoman
Researchers from Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA, presented their findings to the American Chemical Society meeting.

They looked at a class of carbohydrates called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), to see if they triggered an immune response in the body.

GAGs are naturally present as a major component of joint cartilage, joint fluid, connective tissue, and skin.

Laboratory tests

The researchers looked at how GAGs affected mice who subsequently experienced arthritic symptoms, including swelling, inflammation, and joint damage.

They also looked at human tissue from arthritis patients.

Immune cells which bind to GAG cells were found in both humans and animal tissue.

Dr Julia Ying Wang, assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said: "We found that inflammatory cells that accumulate in arthritic joints attach themselves directly to the glycosaminoglycans.

"This accumulation of cells leads to painful inflammation and swelling in the affected tissue."

"Rheumatoid arthritis may result from the body's mishandling of its own carbohydrates that, under normal circumstances, would not be interpreted as a threat."

She added: "It leads us to believe that rheumatoid arthritis may be an unusual immune response."

Further research will focus on developing drugs which prevent this response.

'Step closer'

John Mekalanos, professor and chairman of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School, said: "This study suggests plausible models for how bacterial infection might trigger arthritis and how we might go about reversing this debilitating conditions with new therapies.

"We are clearly a step closer to understanding the causes of a disease that has left the medical community with unanswered questions and many patients with discomfort and pain."

But UK experts cast doubt on whether this was a credible explanation for the cause of rheumatoid arthritis.

A spokeswoman for the Arthritis Research Campaign said: "There is nothing unusual in getting an immune response to carbohydrates and it is not a revelation that RA is an 'unusual immune response'."

She added: "It is difficult to distinguish what is cause and effect when it comes to looking at the autoimmune responses in patients with RA - in whom the actual disease "trigger" may have happened some time in the past."

See also:

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