Disease Information

Researcher working in J Lee Nelson Lab

Autoimmune Diseases

Scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are diseases where the immune system is not working normally. Instead of reacting only to what is foreign and dangerous, e.g. infectious organisms, the immune system reacts against its own normal tissue aka "autoimmunity". The purpose of our work is to figure out why this occurs. The research work does not involve treatment.

Scleroderma (systemic sclerosis)

The term scleroderma means hardening of the skin. Scleroderma is characterized by formation of fibrous tissue. Systemic sclerosis involves widespread fibrosis including the digestive system, lungs, kidney and heart. Blood vessels are involved (known as vasculopathy).

Systemic sclerosis comes in two forms, diffuse and limited, defined by the extent of skin involvement. More extensive internal organ involvement accompanies more extensive skin involvement (diffuse disease). Scleroderma affects women more frequently than men and has a peak incidence in post-reproductive years.

In work on systemic sclerosis we are studying Mc, both of maternal and of fetal origin in women with children, and the molecules encoded by HLA class II genes that are associated with risk of developing this disease.

For more information about scleroderma:

The Arthritis Foundation
The Scleroderma Foundation

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a relatively common inflammatory autoimmune disease that affects the joints and sometimes other tissues.

Rheumatoid arthritis gets better or even goes away entirely for most women during pregnancy. This is not explained by changes in sex hormones. What is unique to pregnancy is that a woman’s immune system is exposed to the half-foreign fetus since the child's genes are from the father. One of the intriguing questions in immunology is why this "half-foreign graft" isn't rejected. We think that sub-cellular particles from the fetus and placenta lead to tolerance of the fetus and correction of the immune system disorder of the mother.

For more information about rheumatoid arthritis:

The Arthritis Foundation

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerves to the eye). The immune system attacks a substance that surrounds the nerves (myelin) as well as the nerve fibers.The course of multiple sclerosis is variable ranging from mild and intermittent to sustained and severe.

Similar to rheumatoid arthritis (but differing from other autoimmune diseases) multiple sclerosis usually improves during pregnancy but returns after delivery.

For more information about multiple sclerosis: 

Collaborator James Bowen, MD
The Multiple Sclerosis Society