NEW YORK -- For years, doctors have been vexed when it comes to treating people with the worst form of lupus, but new research suggests that temporarily obliterating the immune system, then rescuing patients with their own stem cells, can put them into long-term remission.
Lupus has no cure and is an autoimmune disease, an insidious condition in which turncoat components of the immune system attack the body, zeroing in on vital organs. The disease was once invariably fatal, but since the latter part of the 20th century doctors have reduced deaths through aggressive treatments based on tamping down the immune system - therapies that have worked in all but the worst cases.
Now, doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago have shown in a pioneering treatment that patients can be given a fresh immune system, seeded through stem cells, a process similar to procedures performed for some forms of cancer.
"Someone could die from this kind of treatment. That has to be known upfront. That's why we use it only in patients with life- or organ-threatening lupus," said Dr. Richard Burt, the study's lead author. The results are published in today's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Burt said the study proves that generating a fresh immune system can effectively treat patients with the most severe form of the disease. "The idea here is that if you turn back the clock and let the immune system heal itself, the patient should have a chance of ending up without the disease."
Dr. Joan Merrill, medical director of the Lupus Foundation of America, said that with further study the procedure could prove a viable option for some patients.
Drs. Michelle Petri and Robert Brodsky of the Johns Hopkins University, who critiqued the study in the journal, underscored the treatment's drawbacks but noted the lack of effective therapy.