In a press release issued on July 6, 2015, researchers at Temple University School of Medicine (TUSM) announced a breakthrough in the study of systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease which causes the immune system to attack DNA and RNA molecules.
The discovery, headed by researchers Çagla Tükel and Stefania Gallucci, found that biofilm — or bacterial communities in the body — may provoke the onset of lupus.
“Basically biofilms are these bacterial communities,” says Tükel, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at TUSM. “And when these communities are formed, they are very resistant to treatment. And actually what we found is happening with these biofilms is there is this protein called an amyloid protein. We think there could be a link between biofilm associated diseases and amyloid associated diseases.”
The protein of interest is an amyloid called curli, which Tükel says is currently being treated with antibodies.
“We are thinking maybe the flares in lupus could be associated with the spikes in the curli antibodies and maybe this could be a biomarker for the disease,” Tükel says. “Another thing is the mechanism – how acceleration of lupus is caused in a patient.”
Symptoms vary from patient to patient because any organ in the body could be attacked, although symptoms are often very flu-like. This makes lupus difficult to diagnose, Tükel says.
“Our study is suggesting that underlying infections may actually trigger the disease,” says Galluci, the associate chair of microbiology and immunology and an associate professor in microbiology and immunology at TUSM. “It’s important to go and study ways to better diagnose these underlying infections and treat them.”
Biofilm infections are extremely common in humans, Tükel says. Ear infections and urinary tract infections are just two examples of these kinds of infections.
“Understanding how the biofilms affect flares could lead to a different treatment approach,” Gallucci said in a press release from the Temple School of Medicine. “Now, they give immune suppressive drugs. Maybe you want to do something else, like treat the underlying infection.”
Other researchers are studying the importance of infection in autoimmunity, but this group of researchers is the first to study bacterial biofilms products and lupus, Gallucci says.
Their research was published in the current issue of Immunity, a monthly medical journal of recent articles and reviews in the immunology field.
Their next step, Tükel says, is to hopefully start looking at patients.
Jennifer Mikelonis, 40, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was officially diagnosed with lupus in 2010. Mikelonis says between 2008 and the time she was diagnosed she suffered from endless health concerns, including moderative fibrosis of her liver, a legion on her thyroid, anemia, clotting issues, joint pain and renal and cardiac issues.
“There was a lot of stuff that kind of just sort of waterfalled from the time that I had the bloodwork and somehow it was all intertwined,” Mikelonis says. “I had four surgeries within a 6 month time frame that were all related to my lupus.”
Mikelonis says that while she may look healthy on the outside, fighting the disease is a daily battle.
“You never know what the next day will hold,” she says.
In regards to the new research, Mikelonis says she is willing to try anything. As a mother of three with a strain of lupus that is not hereditary, she says she is willing to hold off the disease for as long as she can, without making it worse.
“It’s a debilitating disease,” she says. “It’s sad how it will definitely deteriorate your life. I went to working 55 hours a week and mother of three to a point where there were days when I couldn’t even get out of my bed. It’s worth any try at all to try and help and prevent this disease.”
The research at TUSM was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Fox Chase Cancer Center-Temple University Nodal grant, the Lupus Research Institute Innovation Research Grant, the Lupus Foundation’s Goldie Simon Preceptorship Award and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Skin Diseases.