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Feinstein Institute: Researching a Family Tree of Autoimmune Disorders
Date:9/3/2008

environmental events that may trigger an underlying susceptibility.

It took this latest adult generation to figure out that autoimmune problems have been a part of the family for generations.

Three years ago, Mary Folley, a statistician living in North Carolina, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. MS has been added to the growing list of autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid problems. Ms. Folley's neurologist thought that she may also have another autoimmune disease and ordered a test.

The doctor's suspicion about a second disease was wrong, but it sent the 40-year-old to the Internet in search of answers to multiple autoimmune diseases. She found the research site of Peter K. Gregersen, MD, head of The Feinstein Institute's Robert S. Boas Center for Genomics and Human Genetics, and the MADGC study. To sign on for research, she needed at least one other family member with an autoimmune disease.

At the 2007 family reunion, Ms. Folley moved from one branch of the family to the next. She had a list of autoimmune diseases in hand and asked people about their personal ailments. "When I started tallying up all of the autoimmune diseases in my family I was stunned," said Ms. Folley. Her career as a statistician paid off, and she developed a family tree with autoimmune diseases in virtually every branch of the family. And it seemed to be especially endemic in her generation of cousins.

When she called MADGC study coordinator Gila Klein, Ms. Folley explained what she had uncovered at her family reunion. She even emailed her the family tree, beginning with her grandmother's generation. Mattie Majors, the matriarch of the family, had Crohn's, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. She died in her early 50s, when Ms. Folley's mother Iris was just 13. Her grandmother's siblings succumbed to stomach and colon cancers.

Ms. Folley's eagerness to understand the genetic legacy in
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