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SEATTLE – (June 13, 2014) Researchers with Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI) have used tetramer technology developed at BRI to find the T cells that drive rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and a new federal grant will fund further exploration.

Tetramer technology allows scientists to isolate cells that are difficult to pinpoint, often compared to finding a needle in a haystack. It enables scientists to study how RA starts, how current therapies may impact the immune response directed to the joint, and how to specifically target these cells therapeutically.

“By using tetramer technology, we were able to examine whether T cells in people with rheumatoid arthritis were increased in number or were unique in other ways,” said BRI Associate Director Jane Buckner, MD, who led the study with BRI Tetramer Core Laboratory Manager Eddie James, PhD.

“For the first time, we were able to demonstrate that T cells that recognize proteins in the joint were increased in the blood of people with RA and that these cells had a unique set of markers,” Dr. Buckner said. “Further, we were able to demonstrate that the number of these cells changes over time in patients and with treatment.”

This work was funded by an autoimmune disease prevention grant from the National Institutes of Health. A new $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense will extend the discovery to explore in-depth questions about whether T cells reflect disease activity and if they change in patients who respond to therapy. Drs. Buckner and James will lead the study with Bernard Ng, MD, chief of Rheumatology at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Healthcare System. Research will include biorepository studies of samples voluntarily provided by Veterans Affairs and BRI research participants who help to advance science.

RA is a chronic disease in which most people experience intermittent periods of intense disease activity punctuated by periods of reduced symptoms or even remission. In the long term, RA can cause damage to cartilage, tendons, ligaments and bones that can lead to substantial loss of mobility.

 “If people are appropriately diagnosed and treated, they can work full-time and be healthy, active adults,” Dr. Buckner said. “But they can still suffer and need medications that have risks and side effects. The drugs can be costly and sometimes they don’t work or eventually stop working. If untreated, the disease will permanently destroy joints and cause pain. We would like to find ways to treat people early and target only the cells that cause the disease and eventually, prevent this disease.”

An estimated 1.3 million people in the United States have RA almost 1 percent of the nation’s adult population. Women affected by the condition outnumber men nearly three to one. In women, RA most commonly begins between ages 30 and 60. In addition, as many as 300,000 children are diagnosed with a distinct but related form of inflammatory arthritis called juvenile arthritis.

About Virginia Mason
Virginia Mason, founded in 1920, is a nonprofit regional health care system in Seattle that serves the Pacific Northwest. Virginia Mason employs more than 5,600 people and includes a 336-bed acute-care hospital; a primary and specialty care group practice of more than 460 physicians; satellite locations throughout the Puget Sound area; and Bailey-Boushay House, the first skilled-nursing and outpatient chronic care management program in the U.S. designed and built specifically to meet the needs of people with HIV/AIDS. Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason is internationally recognized for its breakthrough autoimmune disease research. Virginia Mason was the first health system to apply lean manufacturing principles to health care delivery to eliminate waste, lower cost, and improve quality and patient safety. Virginia Mason website:

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Media Contact:
Gale Robinette
Virginia Mason Media Relations
(206) 341-1509

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