Scleroderma: Hidden Killer

FRESNO, Calif.

Shannon Abert is open with her doctor -- more so than she'd ever be in public.

"What happened with me was, my hands kept turning purple," Abert told Ivanhoe.

Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with scleroderma, which attacks the body's own organs. For Abert, it's her skin. For others, it's the heart, lungs or kidneys, which can be fatal.

Abert's body sends excess collagen to her hands, slowing blood supply and causing ulcers. She was forced to retire from teaching when her fingers became too rigid.

"Since the immune system is attacking the body's own tissues, that tissue remains, the attack remains, and it becomes chronic," Maureen Mayes, M.D., from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, told Ivanhoe.

Just 300,000 people are affected nationwide, but 85 percent of cases are women.

Dr. Mayes leads the only study to map the genes triggering scleroderma. She's found 25 percent so far. No one knows what causes the body to turn on itself.

"I would love to be able to know the cause and see the cure," Dr. Mayes told Ivanhoe.

"I never even heard of this disease until I got it," Abert said.

Medication helps Abert now, but she'll never reclaim the past.

"Sometimes, it hits me. It's like, 'Wow, that's what I used to be, and I'm not anymore,'" Abert explained.

Experts say scleroderma may be caused by a combination of two distinct elements. Environmental factors and the wiring of one's own immune system play roles, but the question is: how? Dr. Mayes and the UT Health Science Center at Houston still need more gene samples for their study.

Maureen Mayes, MD, MPH
Professor of Internal Medicine
University of Texas – Houston Health Science Center
Phone: (713) 500-6905

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