While the number of people diagnosed with lupus has more than tripled over the past four decades, researchers remain baffled, for the most part, as to what exactly causes the autoimmune disease.
Previous studies have pointed to gender, ethnicity (lupus is two to three times more prevalent among women of color than it is among Caucasian women) and even the use of some prescription drugs as risk factors, but a recent study conducted at the Mayo Clinic has uncovered another possible risk -- the bacteria staph, short for Staphylococcus aureus.
In the study, published online this month in The Journal of Immunology, even small amounts of the pervasive bacteria caused mice to develop a lupus-like disease, with kidney disease and autoantibodies like those found in the blood of lupus patients.
"We think this ... could be an important clue to what may cause or exacerbate lupus in certain genetically predisposed patients," said Vaidehi Chowdhary, M.D., a Mayo Clinic rheumatologist and co-author of the study.
The next step, Dr. Chowdhary explains, is to study lupus patients to see if the staph protein in question plays a similar role in humans. "Our hope is to confirm these findings in lupus patients and hopefully prevent flares," he said in a release.
Lupus symptoms may come and go, but the times when a person is having symptoms are called flares, which can range from mild, such as dizzy spells or anemia, to severe, including pain or swelling in joints, red rashes and hair loss.
Mayo Clinic researchers are also hoping to uncover whether eradicating staph among people who are at risk for lupus can help prevent onset of the disease altogether.
Staph is commonly found on the skin or in the nose and can cause infections ranging from pneumonia to food poisoning. But skin infections are the most common, experts say, and are more likely to occur if you have a cut or scratch, or have contact with a person or surface that has staph bacteria.
According to the Mayo Clinic, previous research on people has shown that carrying staph bacteria is linked to other autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis, Kawasaki disease and graulomatosis with polyangiitis.