New Drugs Hold Promise for Treating Autoimmune Diseases
March 10, 2000 (New York) -- New drugs aimed at attacking the underlying
molecular causes of autoimmune diseases may one day offer hope to millions of
people who live with conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and
multiple sclerosis, say experts speaking at a conference at the New York
University Medical Center. Researchers are also trying to determine whether
male hormones might offer some protection from these diseases, which strike
At the conference, experts discussed a type of drug called biologic response
modifiers. These drugs, including Enbrel (etanercept) and Remicade (infliximab)
work by interfering with a chemical called tumor necrosing factor, which is
thought to cause inflammation and joint damage in rheumatoid arthritis.
"Our hope is to see such drugs developed for other autoimmune
disorders," Steven B. Abramson, MD, professor of medicine and pathology at
NYU School of Medicine, tells WebMD. "If we understand at a molecular level
what's accounting for each event, we can then target drugs toward fixing the
Abramson, who is also the chairman of the department of rheumatology at the
Hospital for Joint Disease and NYU Medical Center, spoke at the conference
sponsored by Women's Optimum Wellness Now (OWN), a volunteer group focusing on
women's health issues.
There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. In healthy people, the
immune system fights off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, but in
those with autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks the host's own
"Oftentimes, autoimmune diseases can be devastating," Abramson says.
"For reasons we are only beginning to understand, they disproportionately
strike women." For example, lupus -- a blanket term for several forms of an
inflammatory disease that attacks joints, skin, kidney, and other parts of the
body -- affects 15 females for every male.
"Males are protected and we need to know their secrets," adds Denise
Faustman, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director
of the immunology laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
For these reasons, researchers are looking at the male hormone testosterone
and supplements of DHEA, a weak male hormone. Two recent studies showed that
women with mild to moderate lupus who took DHEA had fewer signs of the disease
and had less need for steroids, according to information presented at the
conference. Lupus is often treated with steroids, but steroids can have serious
side effects, including blood-sugar problems, ulcers, and the brittle-bone
"The most important message is that lupus is relatively common and most
patients do reasonably well," says Harry Spiera, MD, clinical professor of
medicine and division of rheumatology at Mount Sinai Medical center. "We
have taken a lot of baby steps and we are waiting for a giant steps like Jonas
Salk made when he discovered the polio vaccine."