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The authors of a new study hope that their work paves the way for a rheumatoid arthritis vaccine. James Porter/Getty Images
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation, often in the joints. It is chronic and can be debilitating.
  • Currently, there is no cure for RA.
  • A new study using an animal model suggests that a vaccine to prevent RA may be possible.

RA is a debilitating chronic condition that impacts the joints in the body. It can cause pain and decrease people’s ability to function. While individuals can manage the condition, there is no cure.

A new study that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that there may be hope for a vaccine to help prevent RA.

The study examined a specific protein and its influence on the development of arthritis in rats.

Arthritis refers to joint inflammation. The term encompasses a broad class of conditions that impact the joints.

RA is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body mistakenly attacks its own tissues. This causes inflammation in the joints and joint damage and can lead to chronic pain.

According to the Arthritis Foundation (AF), joint pain, swelling, or stiffness typically lasts for 6 weeks or longer. RA usually affects smaller joints in the body first, such as the bones of wrists and hands, and the symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of the body.

Because there is no cure, pain management for people with arthritis is critical.

In a recent episode of the AF podcast “Live Yes with Arthritis,” occupational therapist Rebecca Gillett explained that “pain is a personal experience that is influenced by many factors […] There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to pain, but one of the first steps is identifying unique challenges and triggers.”

Currently, people with RA manage the condition through medications and other strategies. For example, individuals with arthritis are encouraged to remain active, reach or maintain a moderate body weight, and take steps to protect their joints from injury.

The authors of the recent study focused on a specific protein — 14-3-3 zeta — and its role in arthritis.

They initially theorized that this protein contributes to the development of arthritis. However, they discovered that when they removed the protein in an animal model of RA, arthritis became more severe.

When speaking with Medical News Today, study author Dr. Ritu Chakravarti explained that this protein acts as an antigen, which means that it triggers the immune system.

She said: “[T]he moment we saw it was an antigen, we assumed that is a bad thing. You always have this bias that antigens are bad.”

The scientists investigated the development of arthritis in relation to 14-3-3 zeta in rats. They used genetically engineered rats, which do not produce 14-3-3 zeta, and induced arthritis in them.

Compared with rats that still produced 14-3-3 zeta, those that lacked the protein lost bone and body weight and developed severe joint inflammation.

In the experimental rats, there were three phases to the development of arthritis: a period with no symptoms, a period with severe inflammation of the joints, and a period where the inflammation began to decrease.

The researchers tested whether the infusion of antibodies to 14-3-3 zeta after the onset of arthritis would help with arthritis symptoms. They found that this treatment was ineffective.

Next, they tested to see whether an immunization that contained 14-3-3 zeta would prevent symptoms of arthritis. They immunized the rats 1 day after the arthritis induction, during the period without symptoms. They also gave the rats a booster shot about 1 week after inducing arthritis.

They found that the vaccination with the 14-3-3 zeta protein reduced joint inflammation and the severity of arthritis. It also helped preserve bone quality.

Dr. Chakravarti was excited by the study results, even though it was not what the team had initially expected to find. She told MNT:

“There is no cure for RA. And this is probably one of the first studies that shows that you can prevent RA.”

The study was conducted in rats, and therefore scientists will need to carry out much more research. However, the study is a significant step toward better treatment options for those with RA.

Dr. Chakravarti identified two major next steps in this investigation. Firstly, “we need to see how this actually works in impacted individuals. Can this vaccine actually prevent the disease in humans?”

The second significant component will be understanding how this particular protein is influencing the symptoms and development of arthritis.

Dr. Chakravarti told MNT that researchers need to understand “how it is working. […] We really need to understand it in more detail, because once we know the mechanism of its action, then we will know what other diseases we can use this for. Can we prevent multiple sclerosis, or can we prevent any other musculoskeletal diseases?”