Scientists have come closer to understanding the genetic puzzle of lupus after identifying 43 different areas of DNA that contain genetic risk factors which increase the chance of developing the disease.

A research paper, published in Nature Genetics, concludes that it will be very unlikely that any single drug will be completely effective in treating all individuals with lupus; rather a combination of treatments will be required depending on specific cases. It suggests that in future, genetic tests should play an important part in determining which treatments are best targeted in any one individual.

Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease widely acknowledged as being globally more common than leukaemia, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. The condition, which is currently incurable, affects approximately 24,700 people in the UK and is genetic in origin. Lupus has an extremely wide range of symptoms and at its most serious it can be fatal, affecting internal organs such as the brain, kidneys or heart.

Professor Tim Vyse, a Principle Investigator for the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College London said: “Lupus is a very complex disease with a wide spectrum of symptoms but this study has given us a much better idea about which genetic variations increase the risk of developing lupus and the likely effects of these variations.”

The research was funded by Arthritis Research UK in partnership with the George Koukis Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Arthritis Research UK’s director of research and programmes, Dr Stephen Simpson said: “Understanding the genetic basis of lupus is a crucial step towards improving and managing this painful and debilitating condition. This is the largest study into the genetics of the disease to date, and has shed light on new genes and processes which play a key role in its initiation and progression, so that we can provide better, more appropriate treatment in the future. Arthritis Research UK is the biggest funder of research into lupus in the country and we are committed to helping people live a life free from pain.”

Professor Vyse added: “Despite the progress that we have made there are still a lot of genetic variants that need to be studied further to bring us close to solving the genetic puzzle of lupus.  Next, we need to expand the genetic research to include results from studies in non-Europeans. This is particularly important in lupus because it is more common in non-European populations compared with Europeans. We also want to gain more understanding of the effect and the consequences of inheriting different genetic variants that predispose to disease. Such studies will reveal more about what goes wrong in the immune system of those people with this disease.”