Natural treatments for autoimmune diseases

April 9, 2008 8:37:19 AM PDT
Humans have an immune system that protects our bodies from disease and infection. But in patients with an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks itself by mistake. These diseases can affect our connective tissues, nerves, muscles, digestive system and endocrine system. Millions of people worldwide suffer with autoimmune diseases. These diseases occur most commonly in women during their reproductive years. Some affect black, Latina and Native Americans more than whites. These diseases tend to run in families, so genes, along with environmental responses, can increase one's chances of developing an autoimmune disease. The most common symptoms of autoimmune diseases are chronic pain and fatigue. Some of the most commonly known autoimmune diseases include juvenile diabetes, lupus, diseases of the thyroid, multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but there are more than 80 known types of autoimmune diseases.

TREATING AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES: There are treatments for autoimmune diseases. Most treat the symptoms of the disease, while others may help slow the progression. Over the counter pain medications like aspirin and ibuprofen can reduce mild to moderate pain. For those with more severe pain, prescription drugs can treat pain, swelling, fatigue, depression, anxiety and sleeping problems. There are no known cures for autoimmune disease, but now, researchers found nature may hold the key to finding a cure.

FROM UNLIKELY SOURCES: Researchers at the University of California, Irvine derived natural compounds from a component of venom from a Cuban sea anemone and the rue shrub plant to block the autoimmune disease response in type 1 diabetes and RA. They work by deterring the effect of autoimmune T-cells, white blood cells that attack the body. The trick is targeting the destructive T-cells while allowing other white blood cells to fight real diseases and infection, not the body. Both compounds block an ion channel in the destructive T-cells that prevents them from producing dangerous chemicals that attack the body.

Testing of the plant compound on rats delayed the onset and reduced the incidence of disease in diabetic rats, while the sea anemone extract stopped the progression of the disease and improved the joint function of rats with autoimmune arthritis. Human tests using blood samples from type 1 diabetes patients and joint fluid from people with RA revealed the compounds suppressed the function of the autoimmune T-cells without affecting other white blood cells that fight infections. Preclinical trials of the compounds are now underway in the San Francisco Bay area.

Researchers say it is exciting to see existing compounds from nature could be behind a cure to these diseases. Lead researcher Christine Beeton, Ph.D., says, "This work also speaks to the importance of protecting our plant and animal biodiversity -- you never know where a new medicine will come from."


Christine Beeton, Ph.D.


George Chandy