Generalized vitiligo - a disease that typically causes patches of white skin on the face and neck, is associated with slight variations in genes that play a role in the body's natural defences, scientists have said.
The scientists found variations in 10 genes associated with the body's immune response in people with vitiligo, saying that although immunity is a good thing, cells that guard the body apparently become too aggressive, killing pigment-producing cells called melanocytes that give colour to skin.
"Generalized vitiligo is a complex disorder that involves not just genetics, not just the environment, but a combination of factors," said Margaret "Peggy" Wallace, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology and a member of the UF Genetics Institute and the Center for Epigenetics.
"A number of different targets for therapies probably exist. As we do more research on the pathways underlying vitiligo, we can begin figuring out ways to interrupt them. This could present an opportunity to practice personalized medicine, in which therapies are tailored to people with different genetic susceptibilities."
In addition to producing blotches of white skin, vitiligo can cause patches of hair to turn white or drain the colour from the mucous membranes of the mouth.
"It has a huge psychological effect on people. We live in a society that places value on personal appearance, and anyone who looks different, children in particular, can be made to feel very self-conscious and uncomfortable," said Wayne McCormack, an associate professor of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine and associate dean for graduate education with the College of Medicine.
The findings appear in today's Nature Genetics.