An amazing scientific breakthrough could mean that hundreds of thousands of people suffering from autoimmune diseases might finally have what they’ve been dreaming of: a cure.
In diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus, the immune system mistakes part of the body for a foreign invader and attacks it. This immune reaction causes chronic and sometimes even fatal disease. There are treatments for some of these diseases, but till now the only possibility for a cure was also likely to be fatal.
Not just for hopeless cases anymore
It’s been shown that a transplant of bone marrow stem cells can reset the immune system and reverse autoimmune diseases. But in order to successfully do this doctors must first destroy the patient’s own immune system with chemotherapy or radiation. This procedure is fatal about 20% of the time. And even when it doesn’t kill, it can cause massive damage throughout the body.
The chemo and radiation don’t just wipe out the malfunctioning immune system. They damage DNA. They can cause liver damage. They can injure the reproductive system. They can damage the brain, causing seizures or slowing brain development in children. That means stem cell transplants like this have been reserved for the most hopeless cases like terminal blood cancers. However, that could change in the near future.
Researchers at Stanford University have developed a way to remove malfunctioning immune cells and make way for the stem cell transplants without using dangerous chemo or radiation. The technique has only been tested in animals so far, but researchers are hopeful. Says Dr. Judith Shizuru, a professor of medicine at Stanford, “If it works in humans like it did in mice, we would expect the risk of death to drop from 20% to effectively zero.” And there would be no worries about DNA damage or any of the other toxic side effects of chemo and radiation.
Good news for organ transplant patients too
The treatment effectively uses the body’s own immune system to clear out existing stem cells and make way for the transplanted ones. The researchers have developed an antibody which binds to stem cells in the blood. This signals the body that they need cleared out, and calls in special “waste disposal” cells called macrophages which swallow them up. When the existing stem cells have been removed, new, healthy donor stem cells can then be transplanted. Once in the body, these new stem cells move into the bone marrow where they generate an entirely new immune system and blood.
This could have far-reaching implications. Not only could it be the answer to autoimmune diseases, it could be used to cure virtually any condition caused by malfunctioning immune cells or blood. This includes diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, but also blood cancers such as leukemia. And it could be a godsend for organ transplant patients.
Currently, organ transplant recipients must take immune-suppressing drugs for the remainder of their lives. Not only do these drugs have their own side effects, the immune suppression leaves patients vulnerable to a host of other illnesses and conditions. The new treatment would allow doctors to transplant new immune stem cells along with the new organ. These new cells would simply recognize the transplanted organ as a normal part of the body, and immune-suppressing drugs would be unnecessary.
Medicine may never be the same. The researchers say this treatment will mark a whole new era in disease treatment. “There is almost no category of disease or organ transplant,” they say, “that is not impacted by this research.”