Cheek swabs could be used for early detection of rheumatoid arthritis, study finds.

New biomarker research could lead to earlier treatment for rheumatoid arthritis

University researchers have announced findings that could pave the way for earlier and more effective preventative treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, the most common form of inflammatory arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis impacts approximately 400,000 adults in the UK. While it can affect people of any age, the peak age of incidence is in the 70s. 

Owing to the speed at which this condition can develop, early diagnosis and intensive treatment are crucial. The quicker people experiencing this form of arthritis begin treatment, the more effective it's likely to be.

The recent study, which was conducted by researchers from Washington State University (WSU) and Arthritis Northwest in Spokane, Washington, and published in Scientific Reports, focused on biomarkers for rheumatoid arthritis, which could open up new ways to diagnose and start treatment for the condition.

Researchers collected cheek swabs from 26 Caucasian women and 23 African-American women. In each group, approximately half of the women had rheumatoid arthritis and half served as a control group.

The cells taken from these swabs allowed the team to conduct an analysis of each participant's epigenome, which is made up of chemical factors that can modify the genome and affect its behaviour.

They found a set of molecular factors and processes called epimutations in cells from women who had rheumatoid arthritis, which were different to those found in participants who didn't have the condition. 

Furthermore, there was a significant overlap in presence of these epimutations among both African-American and Caucasian women, suggesting they hold promise as biomarkers for rheumatoid arthritis.

If these signals can be spotted early, it could enable much quicker diagnoses and more effective treatment of the disease.

Michael Skinner, a professor in WSU's School of Biological Sciences and senior author of the research paper, said: "If we can identify these patients ten years earlier before the disease develops, it opens up a whole arena of preventative medicine that we did not have access to before."

It's also important for people who might be at risk of rheumatoid arthritis to be vigilant to the main symptoms of the condition, which include:

  • Pain in the joints
  • Joint swelling, warmth and redness
  • Stiffness in the joints, especially after a period of inactivity or first thing in the morning

Any joint can be affected by this disease, but it's most commonly detected in small joints in the hands and feet first.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but there are various treatments currently available, the most common of which are medications, physical therapies and surgery.

A study led by researchers in the US has indicated that cells taken from cheek swabs could be used to improve rheumatoid arthritis diagnoses.
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