New research has shown that more and more people around the world are suffering from autoimmune diseases because their immune systems can no longer tell the difference between healthy cells and invading micro-organisms.
Major international research efforts are being made to fight this trend – including an initiative at London’s Francis Crick Institute, where two world experts, James Lee and Carola Vinuesa, have set up separate research groups to help pinpoint the precise causes of autoimmune diseases, as these conditions are known.
“Numbers of autoimmune cases began to increase about 40 years ago in the west,” Lee told the Observer. “However, we are now seeing some emerge in countries that never had such diseases before. For example, the biggest recent increase in inflammatory bowel disease cases has been in the Middle East and East Asia. Before that, they had hardly seen the disease.”
The category of autoimmune disease covers multiple different diseases, ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to multiple sclerosis. For all the different diseases, the immune system gets confused and turns on healthy tissue instead of infectious invaders of the body.
Across the world, it is thought that autoimmune disease cases are increasing between 3% and 9% a year. Most scientists believe this is down to environmental factors, reports The Guardian. “Human genetics hasn’t altered over the past few decades,” said Lee, who was previously based at Cambridge University. “So something must be changing in the outside world in a way that is increasing our predisposition to autoimmune disease.”
This idea was backed by Vinuesa, who was previously based at the Australian National University. She pointed to changes in diet that were occurring as more and more countries adopted western-style diets and people bought more fast food.
“Fast-food diets lack certain important ingredients, such as fibre, and evidence suggests this alteration affects a person’s microbiome – the collection of micro-organisms that we have in our gut and which play a key role in controlling various bodily functions,” Vinuesa said.
“These changes in our microbiomes are then triggering autoimmune diseases, of which more than 100 types have now been discovered.”
Even though there is much evidence pointing towards the western diet increasing the instance of autoimmune diseases, both scientists still pushed that individual genetics still play a huge role in contracting them.
“If you don’t have a certain genetic susceptibility, you won’t necessarily get an autoimmune disease, no matter how many Big Macs you eat,” said Vinuesa. “There is not a lot we can do to halt the global spread of fast-food franchises. So instead, we are trying to understand the fundamental genetic mechanisms that underpin autoimmune diseases and make some people susceptible but others not. We want to tackle the issue at that level.”
Lee also stressed that surging cases of autoimmune diseases across the world meant new treatments and drugs were now urgently needed more than ever before. “At present, there are no cures for autoimmune diseases, which usually develop in young people – while they are trying to complete their education, get their first job and have families,” he said.
“That means growing numbers of people face surgery or will have to have regular injections for the rest of their lives. It can be grim for patients and a massive strain on health services. Hence the urgent need to find new, effective treatments.”
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