Systemic lupus erythematosus or simply “lupus” is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect almost every organ and tissue in the body. Most people are aware of chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and a characteristic facial skin rash that occurs in people with lupus. However, the disease can affect the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, heart, eyes, lymph nodes, and brain. About half of all people with lupus will develop problems in their kidneys related to the disease. The most common kidney problem caused by lupus is a condition known as lupus nephritis.
Lupus nephritis may not cause any outward symptoms, though some patients report foamy urine. Physicians usually detect lupus nephritis during routine urinalysis. Lupus nephritis causes the kidneys to leak substantial amounts of protein in the urine. Over time, this protein loss can cause swelling in the hands, ankles, and feet, and may interfere with kidney function.
The main way in which lupus nephritis is treated is by using strong immunosuppressants such as glucocorticoids (“steroids”; prednisone), cyclophosphamide or mycophenolate mofetil. These immunosuppressing drugs can cause a number of serious and perhaps permanent side effects. Making matters worse, some people with lupus continue to have worsening lupus nephritis even after using these immunosuppressive drugs. In these cases, there is very little that can be done to treat the disease.
In order to help this group of individuals for whom regular treatments did not stop lupus nephritis from progressing, researchers conducted a clinical trial to test the effect of stem cells on this illness. Researchers collected allogeneic mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord tissue. They then infused the stem cells in 81 patients with lupus nephritis and followed them for 12 months. Amazingly, 60.5% of patients enjoyed remission of their kidney disease by the 12-month visit. Kidney function (glomerular filtration rate; GFR) significantly improved in patients treated with mesenchymal stem cells. Likewise, total lupus disease activity (not just lupus nephritis) improved significantly 12 months after treatment. These improvements were so profound that patients were able to reduce their doses of prednisone and other immune-suppressing drugs. Importantly, the stem cells did not cause any apparent adverse effects.
If this work can be confirmed in subsequent clinical trials, it is exciting news for patients with lupus, especially those with lupus nephritis. This work suggests that stem cells may be able to reduce the doses of immunosuppressants currently used to treat lupus nephritis, and it may even stop the progression of this terrible illness in some patients. We eagerly await additional clinical research in this area.
Reference: Gu F et al. (2014). Allogeneic mesenchymal stem cell transplantation for lupus nephritis patients refractory to conventional therapy. Clinical Rheumatology. 2014 Nov;33(11):1611-9.