The researchers were intrigued, and eventually found that mice genetically predisposed to develop a form of multiple sclerosis had more severe disease when they were fed a high-salt diet. Mice lacking the SGK1 gene that also were fed a high-salt diet had less severe disease.
A team from Yale University did experiments on human immune cells and mice, and found the same connection.
The Brigham and Broad scientists will collaborate with Swedish researchers who have access to detailed observational data of human health and diet, to look for evidence that salt plays an important role in autoimmune disease. But outside scientists said that perhaps most exciting is the approach the Boston-area team used, which could provide scientists with hints about where to look when trying to understand other diseases that have a complex combination of genetic and environmental causes.
“We’re all on a hunt for environmental factors. And the problem is there are too many, so we have lots and lots of them,” said Dr. Noel Rose, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Autoimmune Disease Research.