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Why are women prone to autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, are more likely to affect women than men. Now researchers are beginning to understand why.

Diseases like lupus, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis are caused by a body's natural defense system attacking the body instead of fending off actual illnesses. In August 2011, researchers at National Jewish Health determined that immune system B-cells make autoantibodies that bind to and attack the body's own tissue. The researchers found that high levels of these cells were most notable in older female mice. The findings were presented in the journal Blood.

According to senior author Philippa Marrack, Ph.D., a professor of immunology at National Jewish Health and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, "We believe these cells could be useful in the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases, and may help us understand general mechanisms underlying autoimmunity."

The B-cells increased as the female mice aged, and they were also present in young and old mice that were most susceptible to autoimmune diseases. Researchers also found elevated levels of these same cells in humans experiencing autoimmune conditions. The cells were present before any antibodies appeared, which leads medical professionals to believe these cells could be instrumental in the early detection of the diseases.

Researchers also found that activating the B-cells required stimulation of TLR7, a cell-surface receptor involved in innate immune responses. TLR7 is located on the X chromosome. Therefore, women, who naturally have two X chromosomes, are at a higher risk than men.

In 2011, National Jewish Health applied for a patent for a process to reduce these B-cells in the hopes of lowering the risk for autoimmune diseases.

There are currently no cures for autoimmune diseases, only treatments that help mitigate symptoms. Research into B-cells might help treat and evetually cure thousands of women currently suffering from autoimmune diseases.