The word “disease” often invokes images of invading bacteria or a cancerous tumor; in other words, something foreign that can be eliminated with the right treatment. But what happens when the root cause of an illness is the body itself? That’s the problem researchers face when studying autoimmune conditions like lupus.
Lupus is the result of an overactive immune system that cannot differentiate between foreign cells and those belonging to the patient, resulting in systemic inflammation in and outside the body. Symptoms vary widely and can include extreme fatigue, joint pain, rash, hair loss, anxiety, depression and fever.
For Mitra, who manages an autoimmune condition similar to lupus, these symptoms appear as arthritis in her hands and feet and a butterfly-shaped rash on her face and chest, along with exhaustion so bad, she often sleeps through her weekends after a tough week.
“The worst part is being tired all the time,” Mitra says. “Sometimes I push myself too hard, and I’m out for days.”
Approximately five million people around the world suffer from lupus, and 16,000 new cases are reported each year, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. The disease primarily affects women of child-bearing age, and symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.
“In the case of lupus, the body is attacking itself,” says Dr. Ryan Moslin, a senior research scientist at Bristol-Myers Squibb who works to discover potential treatments for autoimmune conditions like lupus. “And the only way to stop it is by shutting down the immune system—the very thing that is keeping the body from being attacked by something else.”
A second challenge is each patient’s experience with the disease is unique. Due to genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors, the condition can express itself differently in one person versus another. Few treatments currently exist for lupus, but researchers like Dr. Moslin are working to overcome these challenges and design new solutions for patients like Mitra.
“Our understanding of lupus is growing,” says Dr. Moslin. “As we change assumptions and improve our techniques, we can imagine new treatment options for lupus patients that we weren’t thinking of before.”
This progress gives Mitra hope that the limits she faces today may someday go away.
“Since my diagnosis, there is more meaning for me behind the term researcher,” she says. “They do more than just create. They’re helping people and changing lives.”
Dr. Moslin shares a similar feeling of optimism, and it’s patients like Mitra who motivate him to keep searching for the next breakthrough.
“I don’t know how Mitra does it,” he says. “She has a very demanding job as a school counselor, and she’s doing it with a debilitating disease. That commitment from patients like her to keep going despite such intense obstacles inspires me to look for a treatment as quickly and safely as I possibly can.”
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