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Skin Condition Vitiligo Tied to Immune System Dysfunction
Date:4/21/2010

Illness involving white patches shares genes with other autoimmune disorders, study confirms

WEDNESDAY, April 21 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists have discovered several genes linked to vitiligo that confirm the skin condition is, indeed, an autoimmune disorder.

Vitiligo is a pigmentation disorder that causes white splotches to appear on the skin; the late pop star Michael Jackson suffered from the condition. The finding could lead to treatments for this confounding condition, the University of Colorado researchers said.

"If you can understand the pathway that leads to the destruction of the skin cell, then you can block that pathway," reasoned Dr. Doris Day, a dermatologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

More surprisingly, however, was an incidental discovery related to the deadly skin cancer melanoma: People with vitiligo are less likely to develop melanoma and vice-versa.

"That was absolutely unexpected," said Dr. Richard A. Spritz, lead author of a paper appearing in the April 21 online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

This finding, too, could lead to better treatments for this insidious skin cancer.

Vitiligo, like a collection of about 80 other diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes and lupus, was strongly suspected to be an autoimmune disorder in which the body's own immune system attacks itself, in this case, the skin's melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells.

People with the disorder, which typically appears around the age of 20 or 25, develop white patches on their skin. Vitiligo it is fairly common, affecting up to 2 percent of the population.

But the question of whether or not vitiligo really is an autoimmune disease has been a controversial one, said Spritz, a professor in the Human Medical Genetics Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora.

At the urging of various patie
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