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Pittsburgh Researchers Link Premature Aging Cells With Childhood Arthritis

Pittsburgh researchers have found the joints of children with chronic inflammatory arthritis contain immune cells similar to those of 90-year-olds.

A new study suggests premature aging of immune cells are linked to children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).

The study, led by University of Pittsburgh professor of pediatrics and immunology Abbe de Vallejo, sampled immune cells called T-cells from 98 children with JIA.

The team found one-third of the T-cells in children had shortened “telomeres” that had reduced or lost the capacity to multiply.

Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes that become slightly trimmed every time a cell reproduces, and it is thought that aging occurs when telomeres become too short for cell division to occur normally.

JIA is the most prevalent rheumatic condition in the world and impacts one out of every 1,000 children, according to de Vallejo.

He said the condition often starts with a swollen ankle, wrist or knee that parents assume is due to a play related injury. Untreated, the condition can lead to slowed body growth.

“In extreme cases, if it is not treated you can have children that have physical disfigurement,” de Vallejo said.

Current treatments for JIA include simple anti-inflammatory medications or steroids that suppress the entire immune system.

De Vallejo said in order for treatments to be successful, cell-targeting treatments need to be developed.

“Unlike other cells in the human body,” de Vallejo said, “you know where the brain is, you know where the liver is, so when you do surgery you know where they are. Diseases of the immune system are very difficult, very challenging because your cells are circulating in all organs.”

He compared treating specific cells to being in the military.

“When one goes to war,” de Vallejo said, “you do not eliminate the entire population, but the army of the other party.”

The project was funded by the Nancy E. Taylor Foundation for Chronic Diseases, the Arthritis Foundation and a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."