According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 23 million Americans have an autoimmune disorder, a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. Dozens of diseases fall under the autoimmune category — lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis are some of the most common — and none have cures.
Symptom relief and management are currently the primary strategies for medical professionals, but the healthcare community is working hard to determine the underlying causes.
Michigan State University (MSU) researcher James Pestka, the Robert and Carol Deibel Family Endowed Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is collaborating with other MSU scientists to uncover the secrets of autoimmunity.
Focusing on lupus, Pestka and his colleagues used funding from the National Institute for Environmental Sciences and the Lupus Foundation of America to conduct studies that showed how consuming the omega-3 fatty acid DHA can prevent the activation and progression of the disease when the cause is exposure to a toxic environmental substance.
DHA is inherent in many popularly consumed fish species and is also present in fish oil supplements taken daily by millions of people around the world.
Lupus, like other autoimmune disorders, is believed to be the result of a multitude of influences, including genetics and the environment. The illness is more common in those who have worked in industries such as construction and mining, where workers may come in to contact with certain substances.
“There’s a toxic mineral called crystalline silica that many people in a variety of industries are more exposed to,” Pestka said. “Using a mouse model with animals that were predisposed to lupus, we showed that well over 90 percent of the lesions on the lungs and kidneys were stopped after the animals ingested DHA. We still have a long way to go, but these are tremendously positive results that can mean a great deal for all autoimmune problems.”
After the findings were published, Pestka’s team received $2.3 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The group will endeavor to determine why DHA had such a positive impact. There are theories about how DHA halted the onset of lupus in the mice, but Pestka said there isn’t enough evidence to point to one conclusion.
“We think there could be a number of explanations, and like most things, it’s difficult to distill the situation down into one tidy solution,” Pestka said. “One thought is that the DHA could be telling the body not to overreact to the lesions, and thus the immune system isn’t targeting healthy cells. There are other possible answers as well. We’re learning more about the effects on the body and hope that means we can start to look at the causation side of things.”
Pestka’s expertise in toxicology stimulated his interest in autoimmunity, but to truly realize the potential of the team’s discoveries, involvement of autoimmune disorder specialists is required.
“There is much to be learned about the human health implications of our study,” Pestka said. “The next logical step after our project is to work on that. I’m very interested in ways we can collaborate with doctors, human health researchers and others who could help us take these studies to the next level.”
In addition to the NIH funding, the research team recently received a donor gift from Robert and Carol Deibel that was used to endow Pestka’s position — making him the Robert and Carol Deibel Family Endowed Professor — and provide monetary support to the Pestka laboratory.
The Deibels are no strangers to food science or autoimmune disorders. Robert enjoyed a distinguished career in academia and private business as a microbiologist and expert on food-borne illnesses. Carol is an alumna, and multiple members of the Deibel family have battled lupus. Upon hearing of the potential advancements in lupus treatment at MSU, the couple wanted to get involved.
“I’m really honored that the Deibels have entrusted me and our team with their generous donation,” Pestka said. “It demonstrates the faith that people have in MSU and our capacity to deliver answers to questions that are really important to them.
“For people like Dr. Deibel, who is so well-respected in the microbiology field, and Carol to think that highly of MSU is very flattering. I look forward to continuing to share our results with the Deibel family and others like them who are invested in our work.”