Rheumatoid Arthritis Discoveries Earn Prize for Three Scientists

Discoveries that may lead to prevention and better treatment of rheumatoid arthritis earned two Americans and a Swede the Crafoord Prize in Polyarthritis, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Peter K. Gregersen at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York; Robert J. Winchester at Columbia University; and Lars Klareskog of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute will share the 4 million-kronor ($618,000) annual prize, the academy said in a statement today.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself, resulting in swelling and damage in the joints, which can make tasks such as walking or holding items painful. The award winners’ research, beginning in the 1980s, has helped form a genetic explanation for how the most common and serious form of the disease develops.

“Their focused detective work has resulted in a hypothesis that the disease arises from the interplay between genetic inheritance and environmental influences,” the academy said in the statement. “This increased knowledge about the disease’s causes hopefully will result in more refined treatments.”

Winchester and Gregersen found that some genes control generation of proteins called human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, and some variants of these proteins increase the risk for rheumatoid arthritis. Klareskog and his colleagues expanded on this research 20 years later, finding that the risk of rheumatism, by then known to be linked to smoking, increases dramatically if smokers carry HLA risk genes.

Lung Origin

The cumulative research yielded a hypothesis that the most common form of rheumatoid arthritis can start in the lungs.

The condition is treated with anti-inflammatory pills such as aspirin, or drugs such as Humira that attack the disease directly by modifying the immune system. Humira is made by AbbVie Inc., split off this month from Abbott Laboratories, and had $7.9 billion in 2011 sales, according to Abbott.

The Crafoord Prize, begun in 1982, is awarded annually, rotating among the fields of astronomy and mathematics, geosciences, biosciences and polyarthritis.

These disciplines complement those for which the Nobel Prizes are awarded, according to the academy’s website. Polyarthritis is a term for arthritis that affects multiple joints.

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