This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special
English. I'm Bob Doughty.
I'm Barbara Klein. This week, we talk
about a sickness called lupus and other autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases affect the immune system
– the body's natural defenses for fighting disease.
immune system normally protects the body against foreign materials, such as
viruses and bacteria. Autoimmune
diseases result from a failure of the body's own defenses against disease. The immune system loses its ability to tell
the difference between foreign materials and its own cells. So, the body starts attacking its own organs
are three kinds of lupus. Discoid lupus
affects only the skin and can be identified by red marks on the face or
neck. These marks on the skin can also
be a sign of another form of lupus called systemic lupus. Systemic lupus can affect almost any organ or
organ system in the body. When people
talk about lupus, they usually mean the systemic form of the disease.
kinds of medicines can cause what is called drug-induced lupus. This form of lupus usually goes away when the
patient stops using the medicines.
body temperature and pain in the elbows or knees are common signs of
lupus. Other signs are red marks on the
skin, feelings of extreme tiredness and lack of iron in the body.
different times, the effects of lupus can be either mild or serious. The signs of the disease can come and go. This makes identifying the disease
difficult. There is no single laboratory
test to tell if someone has lupus. Many
people with lupus also suffer from depression.
can also lead to other health problems. Women with lupus are at greater risk of developing heart disease. And between thirty and fifty percent of lupus
patients will develop lupus-related kidney disease.
affects an estimated one million five hundred thousand people in the United
States. Experts are not sure what causes
lupus. However, the disease has been
known to attack members of the same family. Recently, scientists identified genes they believe are linked to
lupus. They hope studying these genes
more closely could help in development of new treatments for the disease, and
possibly a cure. Recent studies also
support a theory that a combination of genes is linked to the development of lupus.
suspected causes include antibiotic drugs, mental or physical tension,
infections and hormones. In fact,
hormones might explain why lupus affects women far more often then men. The Lupus Foundation of America says more
than ninety percent of the people with lupus are women. Scientists do not know why women are more at
risk than men. They think it might
involve female hormones, like estrogen. Another idea is that it could involve the foreign cells left in a
woman's body after a pregnancy.
There is currently no cure for lupus. Yet doctors have developed ways of treating
the disease. Treatments are based on the
condition and needs of each patient. No
two individuals have the exact same problems. A treatment could include a combination of stress-reduction methods and
drugs such as painkillers and steroids. Anti-malaria drugs also have been effective. Recent research also suggests that supervised
exercise training can improve the quality of life for lupus patients.
has been about forty years since the United States Food and Drug Administration
approved a drug especially for treating lupus. Several companies are working to make drugs that can help lupus
patients. Groups like the Lupus
Foundation of America are working to increase public understanding of the
can be life threatening if left untreated. Yet, many patients can lead a normal and healthy life if they follow
their doctor's advice. Patients must
take their medicines and keep looking for side effects or new signs of the
is not the only autoimmune disease. Doctors and scientists have identified at least eighty other diseases in
which the body attacks its own organs and cells. Some of the diseases attack just one area of
the body, like the skin, eyes or muscles. Others affect an organ system or even the whole body.
of the diseases are well known, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple
sclerosis and type-one diabetes. Others
are more difficult to identify and not as well known.
example, celiac disease is difficult to identify because the signs of the
disease are so common. Patients may have
low iron levels and experience stomach pain. The uncontrolled release of bodily wastes is also a problem.
might treat those problems and not know they are caused by celiac disease. Some people develop celiac disease after
eating gluten, a protein found in all wheat products. It is not always clear that eating something
as harmless as wheat can be bad for a person's health. For some patients, it can be years before the
problem is correctly identified.
United States National Institutes of Health says autoimmune diseases affect an
estimated five to eight percent of the country's population. Other groups disagree. For example, the American Autoimmune Related
Disease Association says autoimmune diseases affect about fifty million Americans. That represents about one-sixth of the
The physical, emotional and financial cost of
autoimmune diseases is huge. Most of
those affected are women. While people
of all ages are affected, women who are old enough to have children are
especially at risk.
autoimmune diseases like lupus and scleroderma are more common in African-Americans. Diseases such as multiple
sclerosis and type-one diabetes are more common among whites. Doctors do not yet know why this is true.
drugs are being tested to help treat autoimmune diseases. Some drugs can be a problem because they
suppress the immune system. This means
the body is less able to defend itself against infections. As a result, the side effects of the drugs
can be as dangerous as the disease itself.
drugs attempt to suppress only one small part of the immune system, not all of
it. For example, drugs like Enbrel and
Remicade block tumor necrosis factor. This is a protein that causes inflammation, a physical reaction to
infection, injury or other causes. These
drugs have been useful in treating autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid
arthritis, psoriasis, and Crohn's disease. However, the drugs are very costly.
They have also been found to increase the risk of cancer.
continue searching for other methods of treatment. For example, some scientists hope to use stem
cells to replace tissues damaged by disease.
Stem cells have the ability to grow other cells, such as heart, nerve or
Medical experts also are working together to improve
the way autoimmune diseases are identified and treated. Less than ten years ago, the Johns Hopkins
Autoimmune Disease Research Center was formed in the state of Maryland. The aim of the center is to bring together experts
to improve the study of autoimmune diseases.
Private groups like the center show how important it is
for scientists to share information about such diseases. Because each disease often affects different
organs, many experts might be needed to treat the disorder. Experts need to know about the most recent
research and technology. By sharing
information about their patients, doctors also can learn from other cases.
agencies are also working to increase knowledge about autoimmune diseases. In the United States, the National Institutes
of Health created an autoimmune disease research plan in two thousand two. The plan urges agencies from different areas
to work together.
private and government organizations are working to increase public
understanding of such diseases. This can
help individuals better understand what to do should they develop a health
problem. At the same time, researchers
continue working to help patients have a better quality of life.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program written and produced by Brianna Blake. I'm Bob Doughty.
And I'm Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English
on the Voice of America.