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Johns Hopkins Bayview News - Uncovering A Mystery

Summer 2015

Uncovering A Mystery

Date: August 3, 2015

Dr. Jean Kim examining a female patient's gums
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Dr. Kim examines a patient for Sjögren’s syndrome.

Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder, is one of medicine’s greatest mysteries. Its symptoms can seem bafflingly unrelated, causing problems such as tooth decay, chronic dry eye, painful intercourse and digestive problems. Researchers have tied many of these complications to an attack on the body’s exocrine glands—those that secrete a substance out through a duct, including the salivary, lacrimal (eye) and gastrointestinal glands. “What we don’t understand is the root cause of the process,” says Jean Kim, M.D., a Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist. “But what we do know is that this syndrome is excruciatingly debilitating for patients.”

So much about Sjögren’s still remains unknown that even diagnosing the disease can be a challenge. That’s where Dr. Kim’s expertise comes in. Through working with numerous patients in the Jerome L. Greene Sjögren’s Syndrome Center—the only clinic in the world dedicated to patients with this condition—she’s perfected a technique for biopsy of the minor salivary glands in the lower lip.

Thousands of minor salivary glands line the mouth and upper airways. However, explains Dr. Kim, few physicians are trained or experienced in effectively and safely dissecting minor salivary glands from surrounding tissue. These glands are superficial and surrounded by a delicate lacework of nerves, she says, requiring an approach as non- invasive as possible into the right layer of tissue.

Having standardized this approach at the Sjögren’s Syndrome Center, Dr. Kim and her colleagues are able to move patients efficiently from diagnosis to therapy. She sees patients on Wednesdays in the clinic, working with other specialists to provide treatment for the individual facets of this condition. Treating patients effectively often involves experts in rheumatology, neurology, ophthalmology, gynecology and numerous other areas.

For more information or to schedule an appointment in the Sjögren’s Syndrome Center, call 410-550-1887.

Researching the Cause of Sjögren’s Syndrome

In addition to treating patients, Dr. Kim also performs basic research on this condition, searching for the root cause of Sjögren’s and clues that could provide better treatments. Some of the minor salivary glands from patients’ biopsies also go toward this cause.

Dr. Kim and her colleagues are currently studying the genetic makeup of patients’ glands and performing experiments to identify the functional differences between these and glands from healthy patients. Eventually, she says, their findings could provide new hope for patients plagued by this mysterious condition.

“It’s not enough to say that we don’t understand Sjögren’s and that it’s just going to be an enigma,” Dr. Kim says. “The patients we see fuel the fire that keeps us moving toward better treatments and, eventually, a cure.”

Reprinted with permission from Johns Hopkins Headway, Spring 2015

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