Getting Around to Understanding Lupus

2009-05-28 | |
Last updated: 2009-05-28

Describing the immune system as a complex part of the human body is a significant understatement and the very existence of so many autoimmune diseases is simple evidence to this fact. Our immune systems have complex individual pieces that recognize unwanted visitors such as bacteria and viruses, activate our immune system against invaders, attack and eliminate these threats and finally memorize the encounters so that fighting the invaders is easier the next time they arrive. When any part of this immensely complex system goes wrong, however, the results can be severe with either an ineffective response to a foreign invader or an inaccurate identification of some part of the body itself as something foreign.

While some autoimmune diseases such as Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and Multiple Sclerosis (MS) are fairly well known and recognized, another autoimmune condition, Lupus, seems to constantly be in the shadows, just outside of the limelight. However, the reason for this is not due to numbers of people affected by the condition given that 1.5 million Americans suffer from Lupus as compared to 1.3 to 2.1 million affected by RA and relative few 400 thousand affected by MS. The more likely reason is related to the way in which each of the diseases show themselves.

In Diabetes, the immune system damages the pancreas and causes blood sugar regulation issues when the pancreas can no longer generate insulin. In Rheumatoid Arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints and sometimes other organs causing them to degrade. In Multiple Sclerosis, the immune system tries to destroy the nervous system and the result is loss of muscle control.

What these conditions have in common and what condemns Lupus to relative obscurity is that each of these conditions attacks a specific area of the body, whereas Lupus involves a much more generalized attack on various parts of the body. This more general assault makes Lupus both more difficult to diagnose in patients and more difficult to understand in order to advance research in the areas of treatment.

For those in the developing stages of Lupus, the condition can seem like a flu with loss of appetite, aching muscles and joints, swollen glands and fever so it is only after these symptoms have outlived the duration of a common flu or when other more disease-specific symptoms develop that a doctor familiar with the condition can make a diagnosis. For people with the disease, disproportionately younger women, the progression can vary considerably from only minor symptoms all the way to a fatal condition. All of this makes the condition a complex one to understand and is one of the reasons that up until a few years ago, little information had come from research.

In the past 2 years, many research discoveries have come to light based on a renewed interest in the study of the condition and continuing progress in genetic analysis. A series of important findings from several organizations working in collaboration has been the identification of 13 genes for which mutations are likely involved in causing Lupus. Furthermore, other genetics research involving a different collaborative team has identified a probable cause as to why women are roughly 10 times more likely to develop the condition than men.

Another area of important research into the condition has been related to the immune system’s signaling mechanisms for announcing the presence of foreign entities in the body. Researchers have identified that individuals whose bodies maintain higher concentrations of certain immune system communication chemicals are more likely to develop the condition. With the higher level of signaling chemicals available, a smaller trigger can cause the immune system to become active. In related studies, scientists have found that mice that were genetically modified to not receive specific chemical signals from the immune system did not develop the disease. Together, the two findings point to the importance of immune system signaling in the development of Lupus.

While we are by no means near to a cure for Lupus, the impressive leaps made in the last few years may some day offer hope to those suffering with the condition. Through the development of knowledge will come the inevitable creation of some treatments to make the lives of those suffering with the condition bearable. Finally, after many years of having been largely abandoned, the race to understand Lupus is off with a bang.

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