Healthbeat Report: New therapy for lupus

July 30, 2009 For anyone living with a hard to treat disease, the idea that researchers didn't give up on an illness that's been known as the drug industry's black hole is encouraging. But, this experimental lupus treatment still has a lot to prove.

Inspiration for Lauren Mayster's artwork comes from an unlikely source: an illness that at times can make it nearly impossible for her to do what she really loves.

"I do have a lot of stuff going on emotionally from the Lupus so I like to just put those kinds of emotions into my paintings," said Lauren Mayster, lupus patient.

Lauren is one of the one and half million Americans estimated to have lupus. It's a chronic autoimmune disease that's tough to treat and can take a life threatening turn at any time, damaging organs including the kidneys, lungs and heart.

Patients have limited options. The few medicines now being used can have uncomfortable and dangerous side effects.

"There haven't been any medicines that have been approved in the last 50 years for Lupus specifically," said Dr. Meenakshi Jolly, lupus specialist, Rush University Medical Center.

And then came an extraordinary announcement. Biotech drug maker Human Genome Sciences claims its experimental drug eliminates symptoms of lupus. It's called brand name Benlysta.

In a company backed study of more than 850 patients, a preliminary report says the drug improved quality of life and significantly reduced the need for debilitating steroids.

"This would be the first medication that seems promising," said Dr. Jolly.

How does it work? With lupus the body's immune system becomes misdirected. Instead of fighting off germs it instead attacks it's own tissues and organs. Benlysta is said to work by dulling down specific cells involved in lupus without causing serious damage to the rest of the immune system.

Another study of Benlysta is currently underway here in the U.S.

"It's kinda slow acting you have to give it at least 6 months and I've been on it this is my 7th month," said Karen Williams, lupus patient.

Karen Williams is helping test the drug at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Karen is hopeful this medication coupled with a positive attitude and other standard therapies will not only get her through but inspire others.

"I do think the drug has been beneficial to me," said Williams.

Lupus specialist Tammy Otset says there are still a lot of questions about this experimental medication. She says no two cases or lupus are alike and symptoms can change daily making it difficult to measure a drugs success but researchers are getting better at it.

"It's not a magic bullet. It's not going to cure Lupus but hopefully it will be something better in our armor," said Dr. Tammy Olsen Utset, lupus specialist, UC Medical Center.

And for patients such as Lauren even the prospect of a new treatment is uplifting.

"That's very, very exciting and I can't wait to try it when it gets approved," said Lauren.

Benlysta has not been FDA approved and study results still need to be released and scrutinized by medical professionals. That could happen later this year.

Questions about which patients may benefit most from the drug remain.

Dr. Tammy Olsen Utset
Rheumatologist/Lupus Specialist
University of Chicago Medical Center
5841 s. Maryland
Chicago, Il. 60637

Dr. Meenakshi Jolly
Rheumatologist/Lupus Specialist

University Rheumatologists
1725 W. Harrison St.
Ste. 1017
Chicago, IL 60612
Phone: (312) 942-6641
Fax: (312) 563-2075
Rush Lupus Clinic

Human Genome Sciences:

Lupus Foundation of America:

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