In a first of its kind study, scientists in Germany were able to reset the immune systems of five individuals to send their lupus into remission. They did so by using programmed immune cells, a therapy originally developed to treat certain types of cancers.
The novel treatment, which was administered to four women and one man, has allowed them to stop taking the standard medication to manage the condition.
While the treatment needs to be tested in larger groups of lupus patients before it can be approved, the early study has raised the hope for treating other immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a disorder in which the body’s immune cells mistakenly attack healthy tissue. The disorder can lead to fatigue, pain, inflammation and in severe cases organ damage and failure. Currently, the cause of lupus is not known, and there is no cure or treatment for the condition.
For the trial, the scientists selected individuals who had a treatment-resistant type of lupus and showed damage in multiple organs. They extracted immune cells, called T-cells, from their blood and genetically modified them before injecting them back into their bodies.
This therapy, generally referred to as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, has been used in treating cancers by reprogramming immune cells to kill the mutated cancer cells. In this instance, the T-cells were programmed to kill B-cells that are known aggressors in SLE.
However, B-cells too have an important role in protecting the body from infections.
Depleting B-cells in the individuals was thought to come at a cost of lower immunity, but the levels of the immune cells were seen to increase within 2-4 months. These B-cells, the scientists noted, were in a ‘naïve’ state and did not attack the body as is seen in the case of individuals suffering from lupus.
The therapy essentially gave the immune system of the recipients a hard reset, keeping the autoimmune condition at bay. The scientists reported that the condition had not manifested for in the five individuals (aged 18-24) who underwent the therapy.