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Researchers in the United States have identified a protein that triggers juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), the most common form of childhood arthritis.

Arthritis is often associated with older people, but it can also affect children. Figures from the NHS show that about 15,000 children and young people in the UK are affected by arthritis.

Symptoms often improve as a child gets older, but may persist for a lifetime.

Although the exact cause of JIA is unknown, it´s thought to be an autoimmune disease, caused by antibodies attacking certain proteins in a person´s own tissue. But so far no “autoantigens” — the proteins triggering an immune attack — have been linked to the disease.

Now, however, researchers led by Dr. Laura Santambrogio at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System have discovered a human protein called transthyretin (TTR) which causes an autoimmune reaction in the joints of juvenile arthritis patients.

In a study published online in the journal JCI Insight, the research team looked for abnormal accumulations of proteins in the synovial fluid and blood of patients with JIA. They found a significant increase in TTR in 50 patients at the Children´s Hospital at Montefiore, but not in any of the 26 control children who did not have JIA. Some JIA patients also had unusually high levels of antibodies to the TTR protein.

“Our findings regarding TTR´s involvement in JIA point to a potential treatment — encouraging news for children with this debilitating disease,” Dr. Santambrogio said.

She believes that JIA patients might benefit from a drug called tafamidis, which targets TTR. Tafamidis is approved in Europe and Japan for treating familial amyloidosis, which is also linked to TTR. The drug is currently undergoing phase III trials in the United States.