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Gender differences in autoimmune diseases: Blame them on bacteria?

Why are women more prone to autoimmune diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis? A new study in mice points to a possible contributor: different types of bacteria that populate our guts.

It goes like this: Different mixes of bacteria reside in the innards of male and female mice. Those bacteria, in turn, affect the chemistry of the animals’ bodies -- and, it appears, their risk of autoimmunity.

The study, just published in Science, was done by Janet Markle of the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute, Toronto, and colleagues. It’s a little complicated, with players that include sex hormones, fatty chemicals, immune cells and a whole host of microscopic life forms.

The subject of the study was a type of mouse known as a NOD mouse, which stands for “non-obese diabetic.” These mice spontaneously develop Type 1 diabetes when the insulin-making cells of the pancreas are destroyed by the mouse’s own immune system, and female NOD mice develop diabetes twice as often as male NOD mice do. The scientists chose these mice to study because they display just the kind of sex bias in an autoimmune disease that one sees so often in people (though it’s a little different too: In people, Type 1 diabetes doesn’t display a sex difference).

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