The study found that patients with a certain type of scleroderma may get scleroderma and cancer at the same time, prompting researchers to question whether cancer and autoimmune diseases are related and whether cancer may trigger scleroderma.
Scleroderma is an incurable autoimmune disease which causes scar tissue to develop in the skin and in major organ systems.
Researchers analyzed blood and tumor samples from 23 patients with both scleroderma and cancer who were treated at the Johns Hopkins Scleroderma Center. Approximately 10 percent of scleroderma patients had cancer who were treated at the hospital.
The scientists looked for specific immune markers in each patient and found those with antibodies called anti-RNA polymerase I/III had onsets of cancer and scleroderma that were most closely related, all of whom got both diseases within two years of one another. Similar results were found in patients who did not test positive for any of the known autoimmune antibodies.
Researchers believe there may be more immune markers in the blood yet to be discovered.
According to lead study author Ami A. Shah, M.D., M.H.S., an assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the patients developed cancer first and scleroderma soon after, which may be because an immune response triggered scleroderma as the body's immune system fought to combat a tumor.
Scleroderma, which means "hard skin," is a rare disorder affecting an estimated 40,000 to 165,000 people in the United States.