Unlocking Lupus: Potential Cause and Cure Identified

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July 10, 2024 – Researchers have identified a possible cause of lupus that could lead to a cure for the life-threatening condition, potentially stopping the immune system from mistakenly waging a nearly full-body attack on itself.

The findings were published Wednesday in Nature. The researchers compared and experimented with blood samples from 19 people with lupus and blood samples from 19 healthy people. The team used multiple molecular biology techniques to arrive at their conclusions, including CRISPR gene editing and a specialized approach for sequencing ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is present in all living cells and is similar to DNA in its structure.

The researchers concluded that the blood samples from the people with lupus showed an impaired body process that is related to environmental pollutants, bacteria, and metabolites (substances made by chemical changes in your body that turn food into energy). When the researchers made changes to the blood samples targeting that process, the lupus-causing cells seemed to be reprogrammed into a different type of cell that may promote protection and repair in the body.

“We’ve identified a fundamental imbalance in the immune responses that patients with lupus make, and we’ve defined specific mediators that can correct this imbalance to dampen the pathologic autoimmune response,” co-author Deepak Rao, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a rheumatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a statement.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system attacks healthy cells of organs or tissue. Formally called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the hallmark symptom is damaging inflammation that can affect the skin, blood, joints, kidneys, brain, heart, and lungs. Lupus affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S., and current treatments typically severely impact the body’s immune system, making people more likely to get other health problems.

“Up until this point, all therapy for lupus is a blunt instrument. It’s broad immunosuppression,” co-author Jaehyuk Choi, MD, PhD, an associate professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine dermatologist, said in the statement. “By identifying a cause for this disease, we have found a potential cure that will not have the side effects of current therapies.”