New treatment sparks hope for lupus patients

Dr. Joseph Larkin has been researching a new treatment for lupus patients. (Courtesy photo)

There’s some hope for those living life hooked up to a machine.

A new treatment is in the works for lupus, a disease in which a person’s own immune system attacks their organs and soft tissues.

For her first Valentine’s Day with her new husband, Gabrielle Davis wanted everything to be perfect, but “I was in pain. I was experiencing achiness and joint pain,” she said.

“I told him to take me to the hospital because there was no way I was going to be able to have dinner or celebrate with him that night.”

Davis spent four days in the hospital and it took another seven months for doctors to diagnose her with lupus.

“Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system isn’t working properly,” said Dr. Joseph Larkin, an assistant professor of microbiology and cell science at the University of Florida.

Larkin said lupus is “very hard” to diagnose.

“It can take years because they call it the great masquerader – it mimics so many other things,” Davis said.

“I was able to get that diagnosis, which is bittersweet because I don’t want that. But I also want a treatment plan so I can start to feel better.”

A treatment plan for Davis includes around 10 pills a day and dialysis.

“About six o’clock, as soon as I get home, I have to set up my machine – that’s with my toddler running around everywhere, getting into stuff,” she said.

“I’ll get on the machine for the night, around 11 o’clock for eight hours. So I can be off in the morning at seven to get ready for the day.”

Davis said even though that rigorous treatment is her lifeline, it’s holding her back from the full potential of what she could be doing.

“I want to be able to go to bed when I want to, I want to be able to go out when I want to, I want to be able to spend more time with my son,” she said.

“One of the horrific consequences of lupus is – one of the many – is kidney failure. So we wanted to see if our peptide was doing anything to improve the kidneys,” Larkin said.

“People with not only lupus, but in some other autoimmune diseases, it has been shown that this protein doesn’t get made enough. So basically, we’re trying to replace that protein.”

Larkin said that in mice, his peptide breaks the signal between the immune cells, allowing the immune system to relax.

“We did see that there was improvement in the kidneys of the mice that received the treatment,” he said.

“We decreased the amount of antibodies that were basically attacking the soft tissues.”

He said it could be years before the treatment makes its way from the bench to the bedside, but for Davis, “There’s been so many new developments in just the last 10 years. And I know there’s some new ones on the horizon. I really, really think it’s possible. I really do – if the funding is there, and the focus is there.”

Larkin said his team is fine-tuning the treatment. After that, it’s on to clinical trials in humans. He said the treatment could be a lifelong therapy or used in lupus relapses. It could also be applied to other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

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