Almost one in 1,000 people have lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease (like rheumatoid arthritis) in which some of the body’s “attacker” immune cells – B-cells – have a hard time differentiating between healthy tissue and infectious agents, like germs. The result? Inflammation as these confused cells literally assault the body’s own good tissues. Symptoms can range from rashes, to joint pain, to dangerous organ damage. Compared to men, women are nine to 10 times more likely to suffer from the disease, which typically onsets in the childbearing years (age 20 to 40) with symptoms waxing and waning in what sufferers call “flares.”
The new drug – administered by IV (patients would likely receive one infusion a month, each infusion lasting about an hour) – is a new type of “targeted” biologic therapy that homes in on a specific molecule thought to help faulty B-cells survive.
“Current medications suppress the immune system more broadly, and the side effects can be frustrating,” said one URMC lupus clinic patient, who has wrestled the disease almost 17 years. “Personally, I try to live with the pain as long as possible before seeking relief from current medicines, like steroids. Hearing that there might be an alternative therapy with a low incidence of side effects is very encouraging.”
While belimumab may only offer modest benefit (30 percent of placebo recipients reported disease improvement after one year, compared with 40 to 50 percent in the belimumab group), it’s still significant according to URMC expert rheumatologist and lupus scientist Dr. Jennifer Anolik.
You can hear more of Dr. Anolik’s insights in the clip below.