Rheumatoid Arthritis - Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Diseases / Research

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Fred Hutch researchers are unraveling the causes of rheumatoid arthritis and identifying potential new treatments.

Our researchers are conducting studies to understand the relationship of pregnancy and jobs to the potential for developing arthritis.  One researcher has found that pregnancy temporarily relieves rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

Fast Facts

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common chronic autoimmune diseases, in which the body's immune system attacks its own tissues. Like other autoimmune diseases, it disproportionately affects women.

  • The hallmark feature of rheumatoid arthritis is inflammation of the joints, especially small joints, but it may also affect other tissues and organs. It is different from the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, which typically occurs as a result of trauma or advancing age.
  • Current therapy for rheumatoid arthritis focuses on reducing the inflammatory response and treating the uncontrolled inflammation. Although a number of different therapies are effective, some patients experience disease progression that is resistant to all known therapies. Currently there is no therapy known to prevent rheumatoid arthritis.

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Prevention & Causes

Investigating what ties arthritis to pregnancy – Dr. Katherine Guthrie and colleagues have found that women who give birth may have a lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than childless women. This protective effect, however, fades over the years after giving birth. This "vaccine like" effect of pregnancy is being investigated further as it could lead to a new strategy for preventing disease. Learn more >

Unraveling the link between jobs and autoimmune disease — Several types of occupations have been linked to systemic autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which affect multiple organs. Research by Dr. Anneclaire De Roos and colleagues has shown that jobs like nursing and teaching, which expose people to members of the general public, were associated with decreased survival from a systemic autoimmune disease. The researchers suggested that this higher risk may be due to exposure to multiple infectious agents, leading to an autoimmune response. Other occupations, including farming, mining, textile machine operation and logging, also showed an elevated risk of death from systemic autoimmune disease.
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Understanding rheumatoid arthritis's causes – Our researchers have found that abnormal regulation of two cancer- and infection-fighting proteins may play a key role in destruction of the body's joints, a hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Veronika Groh and colleagues discovered that deregulation of this protein pair, known as NKG2D and MIC, may fuel a class of self-destructive immune-system cells that attack the body's cartilage and bone. The findings help to explain why commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory medications provide incomplete relief for rheumatoid arthritis and could lead to improved treatment strategies. Learn more >

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Treatment & Prognosis

Why does pregnancy relieve arthritis symptoms? – Pregnancy temporarily relieves rheumatoid arthritis's symptoms but scientisits don't fully understand why. Research led by Dr. J. Lee Nelson focuses on a natural phenomenon called microchimerism, in which certain cells move between mother and fetus, and vice versa. Nelson’s lab has found that genetic differences between the fetus and the mother correlated with arthritis improvement during pregnancy. More recently, Nelson's team showed that higher levels of fetal microchimerism correlate with the interruption of arthritis during pregnancy. Learn more >

Future studies in this area could pave the way for new therapies and prevention methods for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Learn more >

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