Lupus is an autoimmune disease primarily affecting women, black people, and teenagers and adults under 40; people who are all three are not only at especially high risk for lupus, they are more likely to have life-threatening complications. All autoimmune diseases involve the immune system attacking a healthy organ as though it were foreign matter, but lupus is distinguished by its lack of specificity&mash;it can involve the skin, kidneys, lungs, heart, blood cells, joints, or even the brain. As a result, it can be difficult to spot. More precisely, it’s easy to spot, but difficult to rule out, due to the wide variety of symptoms that could, conceivably,be attributed to lupus and the tendency of different symptoms to appear in different patients. As a result, lupus is generally diagnosed only when other possibilities have been eliminated.
Treatment for lupus is centered around medications called glucocorticoids to fight inflammation and rein in the immune system. However, these medications can have severe side effects, including weight gain, high blood pressure, bruising, diabetes, bone loss, and heightened infection risk. Now a new study in Spain has found success with an old treatment. Drugs used to fight malaria, such as hydroxychloroquine, have been used for lupus since the Second World War, and have been shown to be effective&mash;in mild cases, patients taking hydroxychloroquine may not need any other treatment.
Other research is focused on more permanent treatments. In a study conducted in Chicago, synthetic proteins, called peptides, that imitate proteins that play a role in regulating the immune system. The synthetic peptides effectively stood down the immune cells that were working on the patients’ own healthy tissue, without the severe and dangerous side effects of the medications used against the disease.
Interestingly, a patient with both lupus and HIV was found to benefit from the combination&mash;the overactive immune response of lupus overcame the immune deficiency caused by HIV, and prevented the latter disease from having a strong effect. Researchers are exploring the phenomenon and trying to use what they are learning from studying this patient to develop a vaccine for HIV. However, the effects of HIV did not, in turn, modulate the lupus.