National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

For Immediate Release 
December 1997 

Contact: Barbara Weldon 
Office of Scientific and Health Communications 
(301) 496-8190

The first specialized center of research (SCOR) in scleroderma has been established at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston through a grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Total funding for the 4 year grant is $3.5 million, which includes support from the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health. The SCOR will be directed by Dr. Frank Arnett, professor and director of the division of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Texas in Houston.

"We are very excited about this promising new research center. Our ultimate goal is to gain vital new knowledge about scleroderma in order to develop innovative and effective treatments for patients with this distressing disease," said Dr. Stephen I. Katz, Director, NIAMS. He added that a specialized center of research allows for concentrated, coordinated basic and clinical research and can be an effective mechanism for the rapid translation of advances in basic science into clinical application and improved health care.

More women than men suffer from some forms of scleroderma, and it usually begins in middle age. Thought to be an autoimmune disease, scleroderma involves connective tissue and blood vessels and may cause widespread hardening of the skin. Scleroderma may also cause hardening of tissues in the lungs, heart, kidneys, intestinal tract, muscles, and joints. Although the cause of the disease is unknown, researchers believe that both environmental and genetic factors may play a role in scleroderma.

Dr. Arnett will head a team of experts who will focus on three major areas: identifying the genes that appear to be involved in scleroderma, defining the mechanisms of collagen regulation that lead to tightening of the skin, and surveying epidemiologic and genetic factors that may determine or predict disease outcomes in different ethnic groups. The studies are summarized below:

  • Researchers will conduct a search of the human genome for scleroderma- associated genes using a unique population, the Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma, who have a very high prevalence of scleroderma. Several potentially important areas of the genome seem to be associated with scleroderma and have already been identified in this group. The researchers will now look for these genetic areas in scleroderma patients of other ethnic backgrounds. 
  • Researchers will study the mechanisms of fibrosis, or skin thickening, in animal models of scleroderma, such as the tight skin mouse. Genes will be added to or deleted from the animals in order to pinpoint the important factors causing fibrosis. 
  • Researchers will study the influence of socioeconomic, genetic, and ethnic factors on scleroderma patients, including those of Native American, Mexican-American, African-American and Caucasian descent.

In addition, a special core laboratory will process and preserve DNA and skin cells from patients with scleroderma. Dr. Arnett said that this bank will be a potentially important national resource that will help many investigators study scleroderma.

"Currently there are no good treatments that halt the disease. We anticipate that research conducted by the SCOR will provide scleroderma patients and their families hope for a better future," said Dr. Arnett.

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, a component of the National Institutes of Health, leads the Federal medical research effort in scleroderma and other rheumatic diseases, and in musculoskeletal and skin diseases. The NIAMS supports research and research training throughout the United States as well as on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and disseminates health and research information

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