A drug once commonly used for some cancer treatments has potential as a treatment for the autoimmune disease lupus, researchers from Australia and China reported in a study published in Nature Medicine.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system becomes overactive and attacks the body’s own organs and tissues. The most common sign of lupus is a rash on the face resembling butterfly wings on the patient’s cheeks.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, an estimated five million people worldwide are afflicted with lupus, for which there is no known cure.
A research study conducted jointly by Australia’s Monash University and Beijing’s Peking University found that a natural immune system protein called interleukin-2 (IL-2) can help restore balance to the overactive immune system of lupus patients.
“This drug, which can help the immune system fight against cancer, was approved in the 1990s but is not commonly used now. We’re now using this drug for a different purpose, based on our new knowledge of the immune system,” said Yu Di, co-leader of the study and a researcher at Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute.
“The amount we tested for treating lupus is much less than the dose used in treating cancers. We observed the treatment was safe and showed promising results, so there’s reason to believe formal trials could begin almost immediately,” he added.
IL-2 is a protein that regulates the activity of white blood cells, an important component of the immune system that protects the body against infections. In cancer therapy, patients are given large doses of IL-2 to stimulate their immune system.
The researchers found, however, that the low dose of IL-2 given to lupus sufferers in the study actually suppressed the overactive part of their immune system that attacks their bodies. The research showed the ‘self-checking’ part of the immune system that prevents an overactive immune response, called regulatory T-cells, increased after the low-dose IL-2 treatment.
The researchers expressed optimism that the drug could soon be rolled out for clinical trials in lupus treatment.