Therapy with non-toxic peptides could improve quality of life for lupus patients, and may also point the way to a lupus vaccine.

Northwestern University researchers have used special peptides to successfully suppress lupus in blood samples from 30 lupus patients, without the use of toxic drugs.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, causing pain and inflammation. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, lupus affects more than five million people worldwide.

Scientists at Northwestern used protein peptides to stimulate a T-cell response. T-cells are important defensive cells in the body that regulate the production of antibodies. Antibodies usually help the body fight harmful infections, but in the case of autoimmune diseases, they instead target healthy cells.

“We found that the peptides could not only generate regulatory T-cells, but also that they block and reduce autoantibody production to almost baseline levels in the blood cultures from people with active lupus,” said lead researcher Syamal Datta, M.D., a professor of medicine-rheumatology and microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

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These non-toxic peptides may improve quality of life for those suffering from lupus and gives rise to the possibility of a vaccine to put lupus into permanent remission.

“The major problems patients with lupus face are the bad side effects from the drugs currently being used for maintenance therapy during ‘remission,’ and despite such drug therapy, relapses of their disease occur, and underlying abnormalities of their immune system are not corrected,” Datta said. “Therefore, there is smoldering disease and ongoing damage to vital tissues of the body, although not apparent superficially.”

“The peptide therapy we have developed is targeted to suppress the disease-causing cells in the abnormal immune system of lupus [patients]. The peptides are non-toxic, as they are derived from body’s own proteins, which are used to educate the immune system during development,” Datta added.

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Currently, steroids and Cytoxan are used to treat lupus, but they can cause a variety of side effects. Cytoxan, also known as Cyclophosphamide, is classified as a “cytotoxic agent” because it has a toxic effect on both “good” and “bad” cells in the body. It is most commonly used to treat cancers.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, side effects of Cytoxan include hair loss, loss of appetite and weight, abnormal bleeding, bladder problems, severe stomach pains, and even infertility.

The steroid most commonly used to treat lupus is Prednisone. Steroids are usually given in high doses and are used to reduce inflammation. Although very useful for treating lupus, steroids can also have serious side effects, including water retention; increased blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol; psychological problems, such as depression; impaired sleep; weight gain; and osteoporosis.

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Peptides used in vaccines are almost always well-tolerated by the body. This gives researchers hope that the peptides found in this study may be used to create a lupus vaccine therapy in the near future. All the blood samples tested in this study accepted the peptides without any apparent side effects.

“Even healthy people can have this regulatory mechanism of their immune system boosted by the peptides, which suggests the possibility of treating apparently healthy people at risk for lupus with these peptides,” Datta said.

However, there are many challenges to overcome as the researchers work toward creating a lupus vaccine.

“There are many drugs that are now available and under development that can suppress the disease during acute attacks, but after the inflammation has been controlled, therapy such as ours will help keep the patient in a state of remission and without any of the side effects,” Datta added. “The challenge in creating a vaccine has been to find the specific cells and molecules involved in causing the disease and to specifically target them and keep them in check.”

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