What began as a chat between husband and wife has evolved into an intriguing scientific discovery. The results, published in May in BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) Open, show a “highly significant” correlation between periodic solar storms and incidences of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and giant cell arteritis (GCA), two potentially debilitating autoimmune diseases. The findings by a rare collaboration of physicists and medical researchers suggest a relationship between the solar outbursts and the incidence of these diseases that could lead to preventive measures if a causal link can be established.
RA and GCA are autoimmune conditions in which the body mistakenly attacks its own organs and tissues. RA inflames and swells joints and can cause crippling damage if left untreated. In GCA, the autoimmune disease results in inflammation of the wall of arteries, leading to headaches, jaw pain, vision problems and even blindness in severe cases.
Inspiring this study were conversations between Simon Wing, a Johns Hopkins University physicist and first author of the paper, and his wife, Lisa Rider, deputy unit chief of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the National Institutes of Health, and a coauthor. Rider spotted data from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, showing that cases of RA and GCA followed close to 10-year cycles. “That got me curious,” Wing recalled. “Only a few things in nature have a periodicity of about 10-11 years and the solar cycle is one of them.”
Wing teamed with physicist Jay Johnson of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a long-time collaborator, to investigate further. When the physicists tracked the incidence of RA and GCA cases compiled by Mayo Clinic researchers, the results suggested “more than a coincidental connection,” said Eric Matteson, chair of the division of rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic, and a coauthor. This work drew upon previous space physics research supported by the DOE Office of Science.