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Hormone May Be Skin's Friend in Disfiguring Disorder

By Elizabeth Tracey , MS
WebMD Health News

June 5, 2000 -- A hormone called relaxin, which is normally found in pregnant women, seems to help some people with a disease that leads to thick skin and hardening of internal organs known as scleroderma, a study in the June 5 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine reports.

"It's too late for me to use relaxin, since I've been diagnosed with scleroderma since 1959," says Mary Mannillo, co-leader of the Scleroderma Federation Tri-State Chapter in Connecticut. "However, I visited with patients, who were enrolled in this trial and since it has ended, and they have been begging to be put back on the drug. They just feel so much better when they're on it, even though they have to wear a pump."

Scleroderma is a disease that causes thick skin, stiff joints, and hardening of many of the internal organs such as the lungs, making it difficult to breath. Treatment for the disease is currently not very effective, especially for the skin changes. Researchers have known since the early 1960s that relaxin obtained from pigs helped skin changes due to scleroderma, but this new study looks at relaxin that is obtained from humans. Pig relaxin is no longer available for use in the U.S.

The trial enrolled almost 70 people with scleroderma around the country, and treated them with relaxin for 24 weeks. The patients had to wear a pump 24 hours a day containing the medicine, which was given continuously through a needle inserted under the skin. Only people who had been diagnosed for five years or less, and who had skin problems related to scleroderma, were able to participate. Other studies will be needed to see how relaxin works in those who've had the disease longer than five years.

The study found that patients taking relaxin experienced reduced skin thickening and some decrease in other problems associated with the disease, such as shortness of breath and painful joints.

"I'm very encouraged by the results of this study. This is the first properly run study showing that anything works," Naomi Rothfield, MD, tells WebMD. Rothfield is professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut and one of the study's authors.

"Scleroderma can be very disfiguring," Mannillo says. "If something can help people avoid this aspect of the disease, it would help a lot."

Barbara White, MD, who was not involved in the study, says, "Right now the current state of the art in the treatment of scleroderma is based on the organ that's involved, and there are a number of very useful treatments for particular organ involvement depending on its extent and severity. But for skin thickening, we don't have an effective treatment, and this may provide an addition to our [list of medicines to try]." White is professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Vital Information:

  • The hormone relaxin, which is commonly found in pregnant women, seems to help patients suffering from skin thickening associated with the disease scleroderma.
  • A study that tested relaxin treatment in about 70 scleroderma patients brought promising results; many participants wanted to continue with the therapy even though they had to wear a drug pump 24 hours a day.
  • An observer notes there are therapies now that treat other affected organs, but none help the skin. This treatment may prove to be a welcome addition to treating scleroderma after more research is done.

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