Lupus is the focus of intense research as scientists try to determine what causes the disease and how it can best be treated. Some of the questions they are working to answer include: Why are women more likely than men to have the disease? Why are there more cases of lupus in some racial and ethnic groups? What goes wrong in the immune system, and why? How can we correct the way the immune system functions once something goes wrong? What treatment approaches will work best to lessen lupus symptoms? How do we cure lupus?
To help answer these questions, scientists are developing new and better ways to study the disease. They are doing laboratory studies that compare various aspects of the immune systems of people with lupus with those of other people both with and without lupus. They also use mice with disorders resembling lupus to better understand the abnormalities of the immune system that occur in lupus and to identify possible new therapies.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a component of the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health (NIH), has a major focus on lupus research in its on campus program in Bethesda, Maryland. By evaluating patients with lupus and their relatives, researchers oncampus are learning more about how lupus develops and changes over time. The NIAMS also funds many lupus researchers across the United States. Some of these researchers are studying the genetic factors that increase a person's risk for developing lupus. To help scientists gain new knowledge, the NIAMS also has established Specialized Centers of Research devoted specifically to lupus research. In addition, the NIAMS is funding lupus registries that gather medical information as well as blood and tissue samples from patients and their relatives. This gives researchers across the country access to information and materials they can use to help identify genes that determine susceptibility to the disease.
Scientists are developing new and better ways to study the disease.
Identifying genes that play a role in the development of lupus is an active area of research. For example, researchers suspect that a genetic defect in a cellular process called apoptosis, or "programmed cell death," exists in people with lupus. Apoptosis is similar to the process that causes leaves to turn color in autumn and fall from trees; it allows the body to eliminate cells that have fulfilled their function and typically need to be replaced. If there is a problem in the apoptosis process, harmful cells may stay around and do damage to the body's own tissues. For example, in a mutant mouse strain that develops a lupus-like illness, one of the genes that controls apoptosis is defective. When it is replaced by a normal gene, the mice no longer develop signs of the disease. Scientists are studying what role genes involved in apoptosis may play in human disease development.