Thu-Thao was 16 years old when she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, a debilitating autoimmune disease that causes a myriad of symptoms, including organ damage, joint pain, fatigue, brain fog, and more. Thu-Thao’s main lupus symptoms were severe joint pain, heart palpitations, kidney issues, hair loss, and skin rashes. She faced life-threatening complications, and as a result, had to drop out of playing sports.
After being diagnosed with lupus, Thu-Thao received a number of conventional treatments over the course of four years, including the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine (the generic for Plaquenil), steroids, biologics, and immunosuppressants. However, none of these treatments were effective and her joint pain and skin problems continued to worsen.
In March 2021, at 20 years of age, Thu-Thao received an experimental immunotherapy called chimeric antigen receptor T-cell, or CAR-T for short. This immunotherapy is typically used on cancer patients, specifically those experiencing aggressive forms of leukemia or lymphoma. This therapy reprograms destructive immune cells in the patient’s body, allowing them to recognize and destroy tumors.
However, B-cells (the target of the therapy) are also heavily implicated in lupus, in which they create antibodies that directly target double-stranded DNA. The researchers theorized that they could use CAR-T therapy to decrease B-cell numbers in the body, resulting in fewer circulating autoantibodies that cause lupus symptoms.
Following the therapy, Thu-Thao’s CAR-T cell numbers rapidly increased and remained circulating in her system. The B-cells and autoantibodies in her body—thought to be the cause of the autoimmune symptoms—then began to rapidly deplete as well. Just six months after the treatment, Thu-Thao is in remission from her lupus symptoms, and has returned to playing sports.
“I can finally breathe properly and sleep through the night, and I no longer have any water retention, and the redness in my face has disappeared. My hair is also growing much more densely,” said Thu-Thao. She is also no longer experiencing heart palpitations: her heart rate dropped from an average of 115 to 130 beats per minute to 80 beats per minute.
The scientists at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, the German university where the CAR-T treatment was administered, are pleased to see positive preliminary results in a patient with lupus.
“We see this as a milestone in the therapy of autoimmune diseases,” the scientists commented. They are now planning a clinical study with CAR-T cells in more patients with autoimmune diseases.
To read more about this new immunotherapy and the research being done at the Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, read the full article.