Are antioxidants the next treatment for lupus? Researchers from the University of Vermont are looking into it, now that they’ve uncovered new information about what triggers the autoimmune disease in our bodies.

Lupus makes a person’s immune system turn against them, with the body’s defenses going after healthy organs and tissue and damaging them. But why would they attack these healthy body parts instead of actual foreign invaders? According to a study in Science Signaling, a protein that is supposed to warn our immune system when there is a viral infection is instead sounding the alarm without a virus present. And what causes that erroneous mechanism? Oxidative stress.

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That term refers to damage in our cells or even our DNA from highly reactive atoms or molecules called “free radicals.” Antioxidants neutralize them, but if they accumulate they can cause oxidative stress. That oxygen-related corrosion is similar to how metal turns into rust, and in our bodies it has been linked to all sorts of diseases, like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

When the oxidative stress causes the signaling protein, called mitochondrial antiviral signaling or MAVS, to go off, the body releases interferon to help fight the perceived danger. But the University of Vermont said in a statement that when the researchers introduced an antioxidant, it stopped the MAVS from raising the alert and thus stopped the body from producing interferon.

Lupus affects about 5 million people around the world and can cause symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, swollen joints, hair loss, pain and a rash.

Source: Koenig A, Buskiewicz IA, Montgomery T, et al. Reactive oxygen species induce virus-independent MAVS oligomerization in systemic lupus erythematosus. Science Signaling. 2016.

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