When the organs are affected, people with lupus can suffer serious health effects. They face an increased risk for kidney damage and other long-term health problems, and "women with lupus are 50 times more likely to develop heart disease than women without lupus," Dooley said.
Researchers have not yet figured out what prompts lupus. Studies suggest that genetics probably play a large role, but there also seems to be another factor that triggers the disease, Aranow said.
"We know it's more than the genes," she said. "If one twin has lupus, the risk of the other twin developing lupus is only 25 to 50 percent."
Improvements in lupus treatment have helped people live longer and healthier lives. In 1950, a person diagnosed with lupus had a 50 percent chance of surviving two years, Aranow said. Today, the 10-year survival rate for someone with lupus very nearly mirrors that of the overall population.
However, the improvements have not come from research specifically targeted to lupus. The last lupus drug to receive approval, Plaquenil, was approved in the 1950s, Dooley said.
Instead, doctors have improved lupus treatment through the use of medications created for other diseases. "Rheumatologists beg, borrow and steal medications from other specialties," Aranow said. These include immunosuppressive drugs and newer anti-malarials, anti-inflammatories and corticosteroids.
But that could change soon with Benlysta (belimumab), which has shown promise as a lupus treatment.
Benlysta works by downregulating the communication between the immune system's T and B cells, Dooley said. The T cells govern the immune response and tell B cells what sort of antibodies to produce.
"It doesn't completely prevent communication, but it reduces the hyperactivity," Dooley said. "You're still able to fight off infection and have your immune system be effective this way, but you wouldn't have all these mar
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