By Christine Creenan-Jones
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
BETHESDA, Md., May 16, 2014 – Like most autoimmune diseases, lupus can wreak havoc on the human body. It attacks healthy cells and damages joints, blood vessels and vital organs, including the kidneys, liver, heart and brain. In extreme cases, lupus can even be fatal.
Although the cause of lupus is still a mystery, research suggests genes and sex hormones play a factor, because women -- particularly minorities -- are especially prone to contracting lupus during their childbearing years.
For this reason, lupus is an important focus area for military-trained rheumatologists such as Dr. Charles Via, a professor in the Department of Pathology at the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine, who spent eight years on active duty in the Army and 16 years taking care of patients for the Veterans Affairs Department before coming to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences here.
“A lot of service members are affected by lupus,” he said. “And with more women joining the military each year, it will become an even bigger problem for the Department of Defense until science gets a better handle on lupus.”
Via is working toward this goal by conducting research at USU that seeks both an earlier diagnosis and better therapies for lupus.
“Lupus has several manifestations, and it can seem like many different diseases. Therefore, it’s often misdiagnosed or overlooked,” he said. “Treating lupus is also problematic, because immunosuppressive drugs are commonly used, and they lower a person’s resistance to infection.”
In response to these shortcomings, Via’s lab is exploring ways to shift the body’s immune response toward cell mediated immunity, a process involving T-cell activation to target and kill harmful pathogens. Unlike current treatment for lupus, Via’s method does not shut down all or part of the immune system, thereby compromising the body’s ability to heal itself. Rather, it changes the balance of the immune response by inhibiting the lupus-promoting response.
While conducting this research, Via’s team also discovered T-cell responses vary among individuals. Some are lupus-prone, but most are not.
“There are genetic differences in the T-cell response to a pathogen,” Via explained. “A subset will give a lupus response instead of a normal response to eliminate it. So now we’re trying to identify the genetic makeup of lupus-prone T-cells with the goal of developing a blood test that can identify lupus-prone individuals.” Such a test could indicate which patients are at risk for more severe disease, he added.
“I’ve taken care of lupus patients for more than 35 years now. I’ve seen their suffering and disability firsthand,” he said. “Lupus strikes people, particularly women in the prime of their life when they are trying to juggle career and family responsibilites. To be able to give them better treatment options, and hopefully prevent lupus flares in the first place, is a goal all lupus researchers share.”