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A Lupus Breakthrough


By A. G. Moore

National Human Genome Research Institute
Public Domain

Good news today for researchers trying to unravel the mystery of lupus. Attention is focused now on genetic sequencing; the clues this sequencing provides might help solve the lupus puzzle.

One of the best methods used for exploring the mechanism behind the development of lupus has been to look at the disease in identical twins. Since identical twins begin their existence as part of a single cell, they have the same genetic material. Soon after conception, the single cell splits and then two distinct individuals exist.

Medical researchers have always thought that the key to understanding lupus might be found in discovering why lupus sometimes strikes one twin and not the other. Researchers theorized that the twin with lupus was exposed to an environmental antagonist which triggered the disease. Knowing what that environmental trigger was and how it affected genetic coding might offer a clue to the cause and cure of lupus.

Well, this month researchers came closer to understanding the way lupus may be triggered—and not just lupus, but a host of other diseases.

About 22 years ago something called the Human Genome Project was begun. The goal of this project was to sequence and therefore understand the way in which human genetic coding takes place. About five years ago, scientists said they had “mapped” the human genome. While much about gene sequencing was finally understood, there were still mysteries. One of these mysteries was the function of material called “dark matter”, which was located outside the double helix of DNA. Dark matter was originally believed to be essentially non-functional “junk”. However, it turns out that the trigger for many diseases may be located precisely within this genetic “junk”.

While DNA carries the design information that determines cellular structure, instructions to DNA on how to do its work is transmitted by RNA. It’s RNA that switches DNA on and off. One scientist described the network of RNA switches to a bundle of wires in a switch box–amazingly complex and intricate.

With the discovery of the role that RNA “junk” plays in DNA activity, researchers are now not focusing so much on DNA for the answer to their questions. Although misdirected DNA does the damage in a disease like lupus, it seems to be an RNA switch in the “junk” outside the DNA double helix which instructs the DNA to behave incorrectly. These bad instructions are responsible, scientists believe, for cancer, MS, Diabetes, lupus and a host of other diseases.

With an understanding of where the error in genetic coding takes place, the challenge for science now is manifold: find the switches that are giving out bad information; discover what environmental influence triggers the switch; learn how to turn the switch off; and reverse the disease process that occurs because of misdirected DNA.

The problem facing scientists is complex. They’ve been given a kind of intricate road map and have been told that somewhere in that network of highways and byways a treasure exists. There are  clues, but not enough. It’s going to take a very determined and focused effort to sort out the clues and find the treasure hidden in the maze.


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