Earlier this month, Ronda McCullough presided over the opening of a sarcoidosis research center at the University of Illinois. McCullogh is the widow of the actor and comedian Bernie Mac; the research center opened on what would have been Mac’s 55th birthday. Rheumatologist Nadera J. Sweiss and others will use the center to investigate causes and possible treatments for sarcoidosis.
The disease that killed the performer in 2008, sarcoidosis is thought to be an autoimmune disease. In sarcoidosis patients, immune cells clump in the body’s organs, primarily the lungs. It usually first strikes between ages 20 and 40. Sarcoidosis usually affects black people, and women more often than men. The cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, though there seems to be a genetic component—blood relatives of people with sarcoidosis have five times the risk of the general population. The condition may start as an exaggerated immune response to a minor infection.
Sarcoidosis sometimes comes without any symptoms at all. When there are symptoms, they can include respiratory complaints such as a dry cough and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include fatigue, fever, joint pain, hair loss, fainting and seizures, dry and itchy eyes, weight loss, and a general run-down feeling. Doctors usually diagnose sarcoidosis with chest imaging, such as x-rays or a CT scan. The effects of sarcoidosis also show up in some lab tests.
There is no cure, but the condition often goes away on its own—it’s only fatal in about five percent of cases, generally as a result of lung damage. As with many auto-immune diseases, sarcoidosis can be treated with corticosteroids and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, or with drugs that suppress the immune system. The immune suppressant most often used against sarcoidosis is methotrexate.
Research is ongoing into causes of sarcoidosis, and treatments targeted to the condition specifically. Dr. Sweiss and her team at the Bernie Mac Star Sarcoidosis Center are heavily involved in clinical trials investigating the possibilities of treatments that might help people who don’t get better from the usual medications.