Global spread of autoimmune diseases blamed on Western food | Medical research

More and more people around the world are suffering because their immune systems can no longer tell the difference between healthy cells and invading microorganisms. Rather, the defenses against the diseases that once protected them attack their tissues and organs.

Significant international research efforts are being made to combat this trend – including an initiative at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where two global experts, James Lee and Carola Vinuesa, have set up separate research groups to help identify the precise causes of autoimmune diseases, as these conditions are known.

“The number of autoimmune cases started to increase about 40 years ago in the west,” Lee told the Observer. “However, we are now seeing them emerging in countries that had never had such diseases before.

For example, the largest recent increase in inflammatory bowel disease cases has been in the Middle East and East Asia. Before that, they had barely seen the disease.

Autoimmune diseases range from type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. In each case, the immune system crosses its threads and activates healthy tissue instead of infectious agents.

In the UK alone, at least 4 million people have developed such conditions, some with more than one. Internationally, autoimmune disease cases are now estimated to increase by 3-9% per year. Most scientists believe that environmental factors play a key role in this increase.

“Human genetics have not changed over the past few decades,” said Lee, who was previously based at the University of Cambridge. “So, something has to change in the outside world in a way that increases our predisposition to autoimmune diseases. “

This idea was supported by Vinuesa, who was previously based at the Australian National University. She pointed to the diet changes that were occurring as more countries adopted Western-style diets and people bought more fast food.

“Fast food diets lack some important ingredients, such as fiber, and evidence suggests this alteration affects a person’s microbiome – the collection of microorganisms we have in our gut that play a key role. in controlling various bodily functions, ”Vinuesa mentioned.

“These changes in our microbiomes then trigger autoimmune diseases, of which more than 100 types have now been discovered. “

The two scientists pointed out that individual susceptibilities are involved in contracting such diseases, conditions that also include celiac disease as well as lupus, which trigger inflammation and swelling and can damage various organs including the heart.

“If you don’t have some genetic susceptibility, you won’t necessarily have an autoimmune disease no matter how many Big Macs you consume,” Vinuesa said. “There isn’t much we can do to stop the global spread of fast food franchises. Instead, we try to understand the fundamental genetic mechanisms that underlie autoimmune diseases and make some people susceptible but not others. We want to tackle the problem there.

This task is made possible by the development of techniques that now allow scientists to spot tiny differences in DNA among large numbers of individuals. In this way, it is possible to identify common genetic patterns in people suffering from an autoimmune disease.

“Until very recently we just didn’t have the tools to do it, but now we have this incredible power to sequence DNA at scale and that has changed everything,” Lee said. “When I started doing research, we knew about half a dozen DNA variants involved in triggering inflammatory bowel disease. Now we know more than 250 of them.

Such work is at the heart of Lee and Vinuesa’s efforts to find out how these different genetic pathways work and to unravel the many types of diseases that doctors are currently examining. “If you look at some autoimmune diseases – for example, lupus – it has become clear recently that there are many different versions of it, which can be caused by different genetic pathways,” Vinuesa said. “And that has a consequence when you try to find the right treatment.

“We have a lot of new potentially useful therapies being developed all the time, but we don’t know which patients to administer them to because we now realize that we don’t know exactly what version of the disease they have. And that is now a key focus for autoimmune research. We have to learn to group and stratify patients so that we can give them the right therapy. “

Lee also pointed out that the increase in autoimmune disease cases around the world means that new treatments and drugs are now urgently needed more than ever. “Right now there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, which usually develop in young people – as they try to finish school, get their first job and start a family.” , did he declare.

“This means that an increasing number of people have to have surgery or have regular injections for the rest of their lives. This can be devastating for patients and strain health services. Hence the urgency to find new effective treatments.

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