Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 23:19 GMT 00:19 UK
Scientists have made
a breakthrough in the treatment of a severe disease of the immune system.
Research suggests that systemic lupus disease could be successfully treated by a combination of high-dose chemotherapy and cell transplantation.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a serious disorder affecting young and middle-aged people, most of them female.
Up to 15% of sufferers are likely to die within 10 years of diagnosis.
The immune cells of lupus patients fail to recognise their own tissues and attack organs in the manner that immune cells normally reject foreign organisms, tumours or grafts.
This process can lead to destruction of the normal kidney, heart, brain, spine, and lung tissue.
The disease is currently treated by drugs, and by chemotherapy designed to suppress the action of the immune system.
However, the treatments do not appear to work for some patients with a particularly severe form of the disease.
Now Dr Ann Traynor and colleagues from Northwestern University, Chicago, USA, have had some success in treating these patients.
The researchers gave the patients a course of high dose chemotherapy to suppress their immune systems.
They also took a sample of blood from the patients, and removed immature cells known as stem cells.
These stem cells were then reinjected into the patients following chemotherapy to kick-start the rebuilding of the immune system.
The researchers found that two years after treatment all the patients were free from signs of active disease, and that their kidney, heart, lung, and immune system function had become normal.
Dr Traynor said: "What is exciting about this observation is that it appears that the immune system can correct its errors if early stem cells are allowed to mature as naive cells in a "neutral" environment.
"This new generation of immune cells is not destined to repeat the ruinous errors of the prior generations.
"This observation may have implication for the therapy of many immune disorders including multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, and even some types of cancers."
Dr Munther Khamashta, head of research at St Thomas's Hospital lupus unit in London, said the research provided hope for patients who had failed to respond to other treatments.
But he warned that it had only been tested on a few patients, and that it would not be suitable for some.
"This treatment is only suitable for patients whose lupus is so severe that something dramatic is required, but who at the same time have a chance of recovery from illness.
"It would not be appropriate, for instance, to give high-dose chemotherapy to patients with end stage renal failure as they would not be strong enough to withstand it."
Brian Hanner, director of the charity Lupus UK, also welcomed the research.
He said: "This development has to be of interest to lupus patients as the disease is presently incurable.
"A lupus patient never knows what is going to happen to them tomorrow because the disease is so unpredictable."
The research is published
in The Lancet medical journal.