Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
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.