Body Shows Early Clues for Lupus

Antibodies May Signal Start of Disease Years Before Lupus Symptoms Appear

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 15, 2003 -- Long before lupus is diagnosed, things are going awry in the body. New research offers first hints of this progression. It may open a window for early testing and treatment.

The study appears in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.

Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system attacks healthy cells -- in the case of this disease, the whole body is under attack. This causes the typical lupus symptoms of inflammation and damage to joints and the skin, as well as kidneys, bones, the heart, lungs, blood vessels, and the brain.

Lupus affects everyone somewhat differently, and symptoms tend to come and go. Because of this, it can take months or even years for a doctor to make a confident diagnosis.

"For a decade, we have been attempting to pinpoint the first thing that goes awry in the body of a lupus patient," says senior researcher John Harley, MD, PhD, head of arthritis and immunology research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, in a news release.

Harley's study is the first to show that the production of autoantibodies - an abnormal response in which the immune system makes proteins that attack healthy cells -- occurs years before the visible lupus symptoms become apparent.

Closing In on Lupus

In the study, researchers used blood samples taken from U.S. Armed Forces personnel, available through the Department of Defense. From the military's medical records, they were able to identify 130 servicemen and women who were initially healthy but later developed lupus symptoms.

Blood samples collected from lupus patients before their diagnosis were analyzed and compared with samples from other service personnel without the disease.

"We found that their natural defense system just continued to produce more and more autoantibodies up until the time they were diagnosed with [lupus symptoms]," says co-author Judith James, MD, PhD, with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, in a news release.

"Unaffected military personnel might occasionally make an abnormal immune response, but those normally resolved spontaneously, and no additional antibodies develop," she says.