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Promising new treatment for lupus on the horizon

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9 August 2016

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Dr Di Yu

A drug originally used to boost the immune system is showing promise as a potential new treatment for lupus, research published today shows. Lupus is an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks the body’s own organs and tissues, causing inflammation and, potentially, organ failure.

An international team of scientists from Australia and China have shown for the first time, in a study published today in Nature Medicine, that a natural immune system protein called IL-2 can help restore balance to the overactive immune system of lupus patients. The drug could soon be rolled out for clinical trials in lupus treatment.

Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute researcher, Dr Di Yu, who co-led the study along with Professor Zhanguo Li from Peking University People’s Hospital in China, said he hoped the drug could be approved as a lupus treatment within a handful of years.

“This drug, which can help the immune system fight against cancer, was approved in the 1990s but is not commonly used now– we’re just using this drug for a different purpose, based on our new knowledge of the immune system,” Dr Yu said.

“The amount we tested for treating lupus is much less than the dose used in treating cancers. We observed the treatment was safe and showed promising results, so there’s reason to believe formal trials could begin almost immediately,” he said.

Dr Yu said lupus could be a serious disease, and that it hadn’t been able to be treated in a very satisfactory way in the past.

“With the treatments available at the moment, many people still have flare-ups on a regular basis, or serious side effects,” Dr Yu said.

IL-2 is a protein that regulates the activity of white blood cells, which are an important part of the immune system that protect the body against infections. In cancer therapy, patients are given large doses of IL-2 to stimulate their immune system but, paradoxically, the low dose IL-2 given to lupus sufferers in this study actually supressed the overactive part of their immune system that attacks their body. The research also showed the “self-checking” part of the immune system that prevents an overactive immune response, called regulatory T cells, increased after IL-2 treatment.

Professor Eric Morand, fellow Monash University researcher on the study and founder of the Asia Pacific Lupus Collaboration, said that in this study, IL-2 was given to people whose lupus wasn’t responding well to standard treatments.

“The real promise of this treatment is that it calms the hyperactive immune system through multiple mechanisms, which is very important as this new therapy may be effective for many patients,” Professor Morand said.

”As the drug has been on the market for some time for other diseases, it can be rapidly put into formal trials for lupus treatment right away.”

Co-first authors Dr Xia Zhang from Peking University People’s Hospital in China, and Associate Professor Yunbo Wei, from Shandong Academy of Sciences, performed a large part of the research, both visiting Monash University to train with Dr Yu and carry out the research.

The researchers' work was supported by several international funding bodies, including the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Priority Research Program of the Shandong Academy of Sciences.