Like Father Like Daughter: Autoimmunity in the Family
When I was first diagnosed with lupus and learned that it’s a disease in which your immune system attacks your own body, one of the first questions I asked my rheumatologist was if there was a connection to my father having multiple sclerosis (MS). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the disease, it’s similar to lupus in that it’s an autoimmune disease and the resulting inflammation damages, in the case of MS, the nervous system. The damage creates a long list of serious issues, such as the inability to walk, trouble speaking, memory loss, incontinence, tremors, and heart failure. (Click here for more information.)
Like Lupus, MS can be more active at times than others, with the active periods referred to as “attacks”; in lupus-speak, these are known as “flares.” Sometimes people with MS will have extended periods of time with no symptoms, and their disease is said to go into remission. A lucky few experience life-long remissions and basically live MS-free for the rest of their lives. However, there is another type of MS that never goes into remission; on the contrary, it gradually worsens until the person dies from MS-related complications. This, unfortunately, is the type of MS that my father suffers from. He started experiencing symptoms in his mid to late twenties, and he was officially diagnosed with MS when he was thirty. He kept this secret from me and my older brother until I was eight years old, at which time he determined that his symptoms were becoming too difficult to hide and we were old enough to cope with the news.
Even with informational brochures and a well-planned conversation, the implications of what it meant for my father to have MS were lost on me. It wasn’t until I saw him wash his ten-speed and sell it in a garage sale that I began to understand how it might affect our lives: No more bike rides with dad–I didn’t like this. Gradually, his limitations became more apparent as the disease progressed. He couldn’t be in the sun for long periods of time, and he had to stay inside with the air conditioning blasting when it hit eighty degrees.
He began falling down when his legs would suddenly give out, so he wore leg braces to help stabilize himself. Now he was visibly marked as disabled, he got a handicapped placard for his truck, and I started fulfilling my new, literally supportive role, automatically offering my arm to my father whenever we reached a curb or a small set of stairs. Eventually he started using a cane, and he relied on wheelchairs for activities that required a lot of walking, such as going to the zoo. He started purposely losing weight so that he was lighter on his feet, making it easier to walk. But his leg muscles also began to atrophy, adding to his increased frailty. When he walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, he used a cane–and my arm–to get down a few steps that led down to the aisle. He’s now been living with MS for almost thirty years, which is pretty amazing, but I try not to think about it at all.
So with all that family history clunking around in my mind, I asked my doctor if there was a connection between my new diagnosis and my father’s ancient one. But my doctor said “no” with conviction, leaving me with the conclusion that my father and I were just blessed by an unlucky coincidence.
Yet, on October 10, 2011, Science Daily published a study by Yale University on just this possibility: “New genetic links to MS also play roles in other autoimmune diseases.” The researchers compared the DNA of healthy people to those with MS and discovered that:
“[o]ne-third of the genes identified in this research have previously been implicated in playing a role in other autoimmune diseases…[including] Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease and Type 1 diabetes.”
The researchers did not conclude that one disease begets another as far as hereditary genes go; that didn’t seem to be the purpose of the study. But the findings do suggest that now that researchers have identified specific genes associated with MS–and now that we know that these genes are also connected to many other autoimmune diseases–drug researchers can focus on MS treatment on a genetic level that may benefit sufferers of a multitude of other autoimmune diseases.
So, did I inherit genes from my father that made me more susceptible to developing lupus? Maybe. But that doesn’t matter to me as much as the idea that we’re closer than ever to finding better treatments and maybe even a cure for what ails us.