Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a serious systemic autoimmune disorder that affects multiple organ systems and is characterized by unpredictable flares of disease. Recent evidence indicates a role for type I interferon (IFN) in SLE pathogenesis; however, the downstream effects of IFN pathway activation are not well understood. Here we test the hypothesis that type I IFN-regulated proteins are present in the serum of SLE patients and correlate with disease activity.
Methods and Findings
We performed a comprehensive survey of the serologic proteome in human SLE and identified dysregulated levels of 30 cytokines, chemokines, growth factors, and soluble receptors. Particularly striking was the highly coordinated up-regulation of 12 inflammatory and/or homeostatic chemokines, molecules that direct the movement of leukocytes in the body. Most of the identified chemokines were inducible by type I IFN, and their levels correlated strongly with clinical and laboratory measures of disease activity.
These data suggest that severely disrupted chemokine gradients may contribute to the systemic autoimmunity observed in human SLE. Furthermore, the levels of serum chemokines may serve as convenient biomarkers for disease activity in lupus.
A comprehensive survey of the serologic proteome in human SLE suggests that severely disrupted chemokine gradients may contribute to the systemic autoimmunity observed.
The term “lupus,” meaning wolf in Latin, is often used as an abbreviation for the disease systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The name may have been given because some people with SLE have a rash that slightly resembles a wolf's face. The condition affects around 50 to 100 people per 100,000, and is much more common in women than men. SLE is a complicated disease that comes about when antibodies inappropriately attack the body's own connective tissues, although it is not known why this happens. Symptoms vary between different people; the disease may get better and then worse, without explanation; and can affect many different organs including the skin, joints, kidneys, blood cells, and brain and nervous system. SLE is difficult for doctors to diagnose. Although the disease cannot be cured, patients who are diagnosed with SLE can be treated for their symptoms, and the right management can slow progress of the disease. One area of SLE research focuses on finding “molecular markers” (e.g., proteins or other compounds) that could be tested for in the blood. Researchers hope this would help doctors to more accurately diagnose SLE initially, and then also help to track progress in a patient's condition.
Why Was This Study Done?
“Gene expression” is a term meaning the process by which a gene's DNA sequence is converted into the structures and functions of a cell. These investigators had found in previous studies that certain genes were more “highly expressed” in the blood cells of patients with SLE. Some of these genes were already known to be regulated by interferons (a group of proteins, produced by certain blood cells, that are important in helping to defend against viral infections). The investigators performing this study wanted to understand more clearly the role of interferon in SLE and to see whether the genes that are more highly expressed in patients with SLE go on to produce higher levels of protein, which might then provide useful markers for monitoring the condition.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
This research project was a “case-control” study, in which the researchers compared the levels of certain proteins in the blood of people who had SLE with the levels in people who did not have the condition. Thirty people were recruited as cases, from a group of patients with SLE who have been under evaluation at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine since 1987. Fifteen controls were recruited from a group of healthy people of similar age and sex as the patients with SLE; everyone involved in the study gave their consent to take part. Blood samples were taken from each individual, and the serum (liquid component of blood) was separated out. The serum levels of 160 different blood proteins were then measured. When comparing levels of blood proteins between the groups, the researchers found that 30 specific proteins were present at higher or lower levels in the SLE-affected patients. Many of these proteins are cytokines, which are regulated by interferons and are involved in the process of “signaling” within the immune system. A few proteins were found at lower levels. Levels of the interferon-regulated proteins were, on average, seen at higher levels in people whose condition was more severe.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results suggest that patients with SLE are likely to have a very different pattern of regulation of certain proteins within the blood, particularly the proteins involved in signaling within the immune system. The authors propose that these proteins may be involved in the progression of the disease. There is also the possibility that some of these proteins may prove useful in diagnostic tests, or in tests for monitoring how the disease progresses. However, before any such tests could be used in clinical practice, they would need to be further developed and then thoroughly tested in clinical trials.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030491
Patient information from the UK National Health Service on systemic lupus erythematosus
Patient handout from the US National Institutes of Health
MedlinePLUS encyclopedia entry on lupus
Information on lupus from the UK Arthritis Research Campaign