Researchers Probe 23 New Genes Associated With Risk of the Vitiligo Skin Condition


A recently published study has found 23 genes ‘significantly associated’ with the skin condition known as vitiligo. The findings do not aid in diagnoses for vitiligo but do help further inform the framework and biology of what is currently an untreatable ailment.

In Brief: Vitiligo

Vitiligo is a skin condition in which the body’s melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) end up getting destroyed. This creates white patches on the skin, causes graying of the hair, and can even drain color from the inside of the mouth and nose. There is no definitive cause for vitiligo, though some anecdotal reports suggest stress or events like a sunburn have been triggers for specific individuals. One train of thought is that there is a large genetic component and that vitiligo might be a form of inherited autoimmune disease. Another is that something happens to the melanocytes that cause them to self-destruct or die.

The Study

The researchers performed genome-wide association studies on 4,680 people with vitiligo and 39,586 without the condition. A total of 23 genes were found to be “significantly associated” with vitiligo, while 7 were “suggested”. If validated, these findings would have roughly doubled the number of genes known to be involved in the risk of developing vitiligo.

More interesting than the number of genes uncovered was the type. Most of the genes connected to immune and apoptotic (cell death) regulators, melanocyte regulators, and some were also genes that have been implicated in other autoimmune diseases.

What This Means

This study is best understood as laying the groundwork for future research. A bunch of genes have been put forth as being connected to vitiligo, and more work will be needed to find out what the nature of this relationship is. How these genes might interact with each other, whether they share the same expression triggers in vitiligo or there are different influences, and other questions will inform research going forward as scientists seek to better understand—and hopefully one day treat—this white-staining skin condition.

Jin, Y., et. al., “Genome-wide association studies of autoimmune vitiligo identify 23 new risk loci and highlight key pathways and regulatory variants,” Nature Genetics, 2016; 10.1038/ng.3680.