Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a complex, chronic inflammatory disease that is thought to affect about one percent of the world's population. RA happens when a person's own antibodies attack joint tissue, causing painful swelling, stiffness, and redness. Some research has suggested that there is a link between RA and gum disease.
Gum disease is estimated to affect up to 47 percent of adults, and in the disorder, oral microbes can move to the blood after the gums start to bleed. An increase in disease activity has been observed in RA patients who also have gum disease. Gum disease has been shown to be more common in RA patients who carry a certain type of antibodies, called anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPAs), though ACPAs are often found in the blood of individuals with RA. The presence of ACPAs can often predate the diagnosis of RA by a few years.
A new study investigated the connections between these observations. In this work, the researchers collected blood samples from a small group of ten people with RA, five with and five without gum disease. These samples were collected every week for one year, and the investigators assessed the expression of both human and bacterial genes in those samples.
Certain types of inflammatory immune cells carried gene expression signatures that were associated with the autoimmune flares of arthritis patients who also had periodontal disease, as well as the presence of certain oral bacteria in the blood.
Many of these oral bacteria were chemically altered by deimination; they were citrullinated. Citrullination can change the structure and function of proteins. Although citrullination can be a part of the normal function of tissues, high levels of citrullination have been linked to inflammation.
Citrullination can also create targets for ACPAs; when the normal, unconverted forms of the oral bacteria were incubated with ACPAs, the antibodies did not react, but when the citrullinated oral bacteria were exposed to ACPAs, there was a reaction. ACPAs appear to be bound to oral microbes in RA patients.
The findings have been reported in Science Translational Medicine.
The study noted that the immune response to oral microbes could be influencing RA flares, that oral microbes can trigger a specific antibody reaction in patients with both RA and gum disease, and that RA flares cause varying immune signatures, which could reflect different flare triggers.
It could be that gum disease repeatedly causes the immune system to respond, and as the immune system keeps reacting and repeatedly increasing inflammation, RA may eventually begin to emerge. More work will be needed, however, to fully understand whether gum disease is playing a causative role in the development of RA.
Source: Science Translational Medicine