Research Article

Association of the Autoimmune Disease Scleroderma with an Immunologic Response to Cancer

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Science  10 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6167, pp. 152-157
DOI: 10.1126/science.1246886

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Cancer Immunosurveillance Gone Bad?

A subset of patients who develop scleroderma, a debilitating autoimmune disease, have an elevated risk of developing cancer. These patients harbor autoantibodies to RPC1, an RNA polymerase subunit encoded by the POLR3A gene. Joseph et al. (p. 152, published online December 5; see the Perspective by Teng and Smyth) explored whether the RPC1 autoantibodies target a “foreign” antigen derived from a mutated POLR3A gene. Sequence analysis revealed that POLR3A mutations were present in tumors from six of eight patients with RPC1 autoantibodies but in no tumors from eight control patients who lacked RPC1 autoantibodies. Cell culture data suggested that the POLR3A mutations triggered cellular and humoral immune responses in the patients. These results provide support for the “immunosurveillance” hypothesis, which posits the continual eradication of nascent tumor cells via immune responses.


Autoimmune diseases are thought to be initiated by exposures to foreign antigens that cross-react with endogenous molecules. Scleroderma is an autoimmune connective tissue disease in which patients make antibodies to a limited group of autoantigens, including RPC1, encoded by the POLR3A gene. As patients with scleroderma and antibodies against RPC1 are at increased risk for cancer, we hypothesized that the “foreign” antigens in this autoimmune disease are encoded by somatically mutated genes in the patients’ incipient cancers. Studying cancers from scleroderma patients, we found genetic alterations of the POLR3A locus in six of eight patients with antibodies to RPC1 but not in eight patients without antibodies to RPC1. Analyses of peripheral blood lymphocytes and serum suggested that POLR3A mutations triggered cellular immunity and cross-reactive humoral immune responses. These results offer insight into the pathogenesis of scleroderma and provide support for the idea that acquired immunity helps to control naturally occurring cancers.

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