Experimental lupus therapy could be ‘life-changing’ for patients with autoimmune disease, study finds

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Australian researchers may have found a breakthrough treatment for lupus.

In a study published in Nature Communications on Feb. 6, scientists at Monash University revealed that they were able to “fix” defective cells that can cause lupus, an autoimmune disease.

They accomplished this by infusing human cells — called regulatory T cells — harvested from healthy people, which then triggered a protective mechanism that helps to prevent autoimmunity, according to a press release from the university.

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People who develop lupus and other autoimmune disorders lack these special T cells.

“We’ve figured out a way to fix a defect that causes lupus,” Peter Eggenhuizen, a research fellow at Monash University and co-first author of the study, told Fox News Digital.

Woman joint pain

Common symptoms of lupus include joint pain, extreme fatigue, joint pain or a butterfly rash. (iStock)

“We achieved this by engineering patient cells with protective molecules from healthy people. In preclinical models, this halted lupus kidney disease progression.”

The research was performed in both test tubes and in mouse models.

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The researchers were surprised to discover that the infused patient cells,enhanced with protective molecules, suppressed lupus without the need for toxic immunosuppressant drugs.

“New technologies using T regulatory cells as therapy for lupus and other autoimmune conditions are emerging and herald a new generation of personalized medicine,” Eggenhuizen said. 

Kidney ultrasound

An experimental therapy was able to “completely arrest” the development of lupus kidney disease without using potentially harmful immunosuppressant drugs, said researchers (not pictured).  (iStock)

Co-senior author Joshua Ooi, an associate professor who heads Monash University’s Regulatory T Cell Therapies Group at Monash Health, said the new therapy was able to “completely arrest” the development of lupus kidney disease. 

“It’s like a reset of the abnormal immune system back to a healthy state — kind of like a major software upgrade,” Ooi said in the press release. 

“That it uses the patient’s own cells is a very special part of this.”

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Beyond treating lupus, the researchers hope that the targeted T regulatory cell therapy can be used eventually as a therapy for over 100 other autoimmune conditions, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. 

Although these initial findings are promising, the researcher emphasized that this work is at the pre-clinical stage

Lupus awareness

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that impacts some 1.5 million people in the U.S. (iStock)

“Two years of additional research and development is required before the first human clinical trials can commence,” he said.

Human clinical trials are expected to start in 2026 to determine the viability of the experimental treatment method.

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Dr. Emily Littlejohn, a rheumatologist and lupus expert from Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, was not involved in the clinical studies but said the proposed treatment looks “promising” as a possible therapy for certain lupus patients.

“This Australian group from Monash University was able to halt the progression of lupus nephritis in a lupus mouse model,” she told Fox News Digital in an interview. 

“Lupus nephritis is one of the most devastating manifestations of systemic lupus, and this therapy could prove to be life-changing for many of our patients.”

Sick woman

Lupus is more common among women between 15 and 44 years of age and people who are African American, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, or Pacific Islander, according to the Lupus Foundation. (iStock)

Because this study was done in vitro and in lupus nephritis mouse models, Littlejohn noted that it’s very difficult to make presumptions about how this therapy will perform in humans with lupus.  

“It will be interesting to see how this treatment translates in clinical trials using human patients,” she added.

Current treatments for lupus include disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, or DMARDs, in addition to biologic agents, which are immunosuppressive therapies in either tablet, injection or infusion form, Littlejohn noted. 

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“While these drugs have proven to be useful to treat and prevent progression of lupus, we still do not have ample success rates in treating patients with lupus nephritis,” she said. “We are looking forward to the up-and-coming drug trials that are ongoing in this space for treatment of different forms of systemic lupus.”

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What to know about lupus

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the body, which causes inflammation and pain in the body, according to the Lupus Foundation of America’s website.

The disease most often affects the joints, skin and major organs, such as the kidneys and heart. 

Common symptoms include joint pain, extreme fatigue, joint pain or a butterfly rash.

Back pain in bed

The disease most often affects the joints, skin and major organs, such as the kidneys and heart. (iStock)

There are four different types of lupus, as detailed on the foundation’s website.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common form, affects multiple organs or organ systems.

Cutaneous lupus only affects the skin, while drug-induced lupus is triggered by specific prescription drugs.

Neonatal lupus is a rare condition that is passed from a pregnant woman to her infant.

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Lupus can run in families, and it’s also more common among women between 15 and 44 years of age and people who are African American, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, or Pacific Islander, according to the same foundation.

The disease affects approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S.

medications and lab tests

Although these initial findings are promising, the researcher emphasized that this work is at the pre-clinical stage.  (iStock)

“Systemic lupus is a life-threatening and difficult-to-treat disease,” said Littlejohn. 

“Given the variety of manifestations of this disease and the wide range of clinical symptoms, having more treatment options will only help improve disease outcomes and quality of life in these patients.”

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With dozens of new drugs in various stages of clinical trial, Littlejohn said this is an “exciting time” for drug development in systemic lupus.

“The ongoing scientific work and treatment development breakthroughs, such as the one put forth in this article, are wonderful to see.”

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