By A. G. Moore 11/23/2013 Edward Jenner injecting James Phipps, his gardener's son, with cowpox Lithograph by Gaston Melengue Wikimedia Commons, public domain, Copyright expired
Sixty years ago, when Flannery O’Connor learned she had lupus, one medication was available to treat her disease: hydrocortisone. Twenty years before her diagnosis, Edward O’Connor, her father, learned that he had lupus. For him there was no treatment. Times have changed since Flannery and her father battled lupus. Today the list of treatment options is long. These options exist because researchers have worked tirelessly to solve the lupus puzzle and because they were aided in their efforts by the participation of countless lupus patients in clinical trials. While much of the work researchers do takes place in the laboratory, the proving ground for their investment is the clinical trial. Currently there are clinical trials underway that are exploring new theories in lupus therapy. One of these theories has been described by Dr. Timothy Niewold, who is a scientist affiliated with the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Niewold is investigating the role of interferon in lupus. There is clear evidence that in some people levels of interferon rise with disease activity. In certain instances, lupus has actually been precipitated by administration of interferon (for an unrelated illness). With the apparent association between interferon levels and lupus, it has been suggested that decreasing interferon production might temper symptoms of the disease. Drugs are being designed that are supposed to do just that. Targeting interferon is one example of the trend in lupus treatment to zero in on specific components of the immune response–rather than suppressing the entire immune system. When Flannery O’Connor was prescribed hydrocortisone, the drug was effective because it stopped her immune system from attacking her organs. However, shutting down the whole immune system is a rather blunt way of dealing with autoimmunity. It’s kind of like trying to weed the front lawn with a scythe; maybe the job gets done, but a whole lot of grass and flowers are sacrificed in the process. Shutting down the immune system can have devastating consequences. It is hoped that by targeting specific actors in the system, treatment may not only be more effective but may have less dramatic side effects. One of the interferon-targeting drugs currently under investigation is sifalimumab. Dr. Niewold (of the Mayo Clinic) explains that an important aspect of research on interferon-targeting medications is understanding how this cytokine acts in people from different ethnic backgrounds. As sifalimumab goes through its different trials, it is becoming clear that interferon does not have equal significance for all ethnic groups. For example, interferon activation in African American SLE patients is dependent on the presence of autoantibodies; this is not true for European Americans. Dr. Niewold states: “This heterogeneity may be clinically important, as therapeutics targeting this pathway are being developed.” Targeting specific aspects of the immune system is the theory behind the development of other lupus therapies. B and T cells, for example, are known to be very aggressive in active lupus. Belimumab , currently prescribed for certain types of lupus, targets B cells and Abatacept, which is an RA drug under consideration for lupus, targets T cells. Both drugs are currently in clinical trials. Clinical trials are essential if new therapies are to come on the market. They also may be of help to those who volunteer as subjects, because there is possibly the opportunity to receive novel and effective treatment. However, every person who volunteers as a subject should be clear about the goals of the study for which they have been recruited. Not every study has as a primary endpoint improvement in participants’ disease status. Some studies examine other aspects of drug development. Volunteers should never lose sight of the fact that participation may carry with it significant risks. One research paper I came across illustrates the importance of being informed before becoming a volunteer. This paper gives the results of a clinical trial in which sifalimumab was studied. The primary purpose of the trial is described: “..to evaluate the safety and tolerability of multiple doses of intravenous (IV) sifalimumab in patients with moderate-to-severe SLE.” Secondary objectives of the trial are also described: “..to evaluate the PK (Pharmacokinetics) and immunogenicity” of the drug. Only as a third and almost incidental objective is observation of the effect sifalimumab has on disease activity. The research paper describes this third objective in the following words: “…measurements of disease activity…were included only as an exploratory end point… ” The clinical trial described by this research paper has obvious significance for lupus treatment; finding out dose tolerance and learning about adverse side effects are important pieces in the development of a possibly valuable lupus intervention. However, these are findings that have general importance and likely will not immediately benefit study participants. It does not seem that those who conducted the study expected subjects in the clinical trial to experience sustained improvement in disease status; that was not the study’s defined prime objective. This leads me to repeat the following: if you are considering being a volunteer in a clinical trial, make sure you understand what it is that the researchers hope to learn from that trial. Does the trial offer participants an opportunity to reap the benefits of new lupus treatment, or are participants merely being mined, as it were, for information that may contribute some day to a good lupus intervention? Know that there are risks associated with participation. In the study described above, for example, some participants did die. Whether or not these deaths were attributable to sifalimumab is not certain, though, as the paper states, for at least two of the deaths, “… a potential role of the drug in contributing to the infection cannot be excluded.” Without clinical trials there cannot be new drugs to treat lupus. Volunteers for these trials are essential if the trials are to succeed. However, if you choose to become a subject, be clear about what it is you are submitting to. And then, if you are satisfied with the risk/reward ratio, go for it. You and everyone else with lupus may benefit.