Bob Saget’s Battle Against Scleroderma, the Autoimmune Disease that Took His Sister’s Life

Actor Bob Saget was an advocate for scleroderma research, raising over $25 million to find a cure. Image courtesy of the Scleroderma Foundation.

Bob Saget, the beloved Full House actor who recently passed away, battled against a little-known autoimmune disease prior to his passing. The condition was scleroderma, and it was responsible for the passing of his older sister Gay Saget at the young age of 47.

Gay was diagnosed with scleroderma at age 44, a mere three years before her passing. She had suffered from unrelenting symptoms for years before her diagnosis, however, but doctors couldn’t pinpoint the cause. Her brother Bob had commented on his sister’s diagnosis journey, saying: “She had a lot of fatigue…it felt like her skin was on fire. She went to regular medical doctors that said that it could be lupus, it could be mental illness, it could be Epstein-Barr. They named everything except what it was.”  

Gay’s frustrating journey to diagnosis is no outlier in the chronic illness community. Many patients with chronic illnesses such as autoimmune diseases go years without a diagnosis, until their symptoms become severe enough to be diagnosed.

Dr. Fred Wigley, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, has studied scleroderma for the past 45 years. “[Scleroderma] can be a very terrible multi-system disease, but not in every patient,” Dr. Wigley said. With scleroderma, the body over-produces collagen, impairing the functioning of various organs. Common symptoms of the condition include tightening of the skin, finger and toe pain, arthritis, muscle weakness and trouble swallowing. It can also damage internal organs, especially the lungs.  

Gay was among approximately 300,000 Americans living with the disease. About 80% of these patients are women, most commonly between the ages of 30 and 50. The disease tends to be more severe in patients of color, for unknown reasons.

Bob said that his sister was treated with steroids, like prednisone and cortisone, but that the drugs failed to relieve her symptoms, and did not get to the root cause of the disease. “She got treatment, but it was just treating her symptoms…She had to move to Los Angeles to live with my parents because she needed so much help,” he had explained. 

There are multiple different types of scleroderma, with localized being the most common and more mild type. With localized scleroderma, the internal organs are rarely involved, and it primarily affects the skin. Systemic scleroderma is the less common type, affecting about 30% of patients living with the condition. This is the type that Bob Saget’s sister had, which impacts one’s connective tissues and internal organs.

Since scleroderma was a cause that was very dear to his heart, Bob Saget focused on raising funds for the Scleroderma Research Foundation, which aims to find a cure for this debilitating autoimmune disease. In total, he raised over $25 million for the foundation prior to his passing, leveraging his fame and Hollywood connections to garner donations from big-name celebrities like John Mayer, Rob Williams and Dave Chappelle.

“For me, it’s an homage to [my sister], and somehow telling her that her life had a real purpose,” Saget had said. He continued, “I have a lot to live up to. I feel like, to really do her justice, is to really make huge strides in the next decade or two and to really help these sweet, innocent victims with this disease.” 

In light of Bob Saget’s passing, his family members asked friends and fans to remember him by making a donation to charities benefitting patients with scleroderma. To make a donation in Bob Saget’s memory to the Scleroderma Research Foundation, see the official in memory webpage. Donations will be matched up to $1.5 million.

Experimental Immunotherapy Puts Lupus into Remission for Young Patient

20-year-old lupus patient Thu-Thao received an experimental treatment which put her symptoms into remission. Story via Autoimmune Warrior.
Thu-Thao (center) received an experimental treatment called CAR-T which put her lupus symptoms into remission.

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.

20-year-old Thu-Thao is finally experiencing relief from her debilitating lupus symptoms, four years after being diagnosed.

“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.

9/11 Survivors May Be At Greater Risk of Developing Autoimmune Diseases

Jennifer Waddleton, 51, is suffering from an autoimmune disease after serving as a 9/11 first responder. Image courtesy of NBC news.

Jennifer Waddleton, 31, was working as a paramedic in emergency medical services when she was called to ground zero in New York City on September 11, 2001, after the devastating terrorist attacks on the twin towers. Waddleton is among an estimated 400,000 people who were exposed to toxic debris after the collapse of the towers.

At the time, Waddleton didn’t realize the impact that responding to the event had had on her physical and mental health. Now, however, things are different. She can barely stand for more than 30 minutes at a time or tolerate sunlight. She has brain lesions, her hair is falling out, and her teeth are deteriorating.

“My body is failing me at 51,” said Waddleton, who was diagnosed with cancer, chronic acid reflux, sinus issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But Waddleton began to experience other symptoms that couldn’t be explained by these diagnoses, including crippling fatigue, chronic migraines, and difficulty swallowing. She knew something wasn’t right.

“In the back of my head, I always knew,” she said. “But everyone was like: ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s all in your head. You need sleep, you work crazy hours. Stop complaining’.”

Despite dealing with medical gaslighting for years, Waddleton eventually had kidney failure, and doctors couldn’t deny her poor health any longer. She was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) in 2012, 11 years after responding to 9/11. Lupus occurs when the body’s own immune system attacks and damages its organs and tissues.

Before being diagnosed, Waddleton was concerned that her troubling symptoms were somehow related to her experience as a 9/11 responder, and if there were others out there experiencing the same thing. According to several research studies, Waddleton’s concerns are valid; autoimmune diseases do appear to be on the rise among 9/11 victims and first responders alike.

Autoimmune diseases may have been triggered among 9/11 victims as a result of exposure to toxic dust at the scene. Crystalline silica, a construction mineral and major component of the debris, is a noted risk factor for autoimmune disorders. Other chemicals found on-site, like organic hydrocarbon solvents and asbestos, have also been associated with immune dysfunction. A 2015 study found that for every month a first responder worked on the World Trade Center site, the risk of developing an autoimmune disease rose by 13%. A 2019 study based on over 43,000 World Trade Center Health Registry participants found that first responders with intense exposure to the toxic dust were almost twice as likely to develop systemic autoimmune diseases. The most frequently diagnosed autoimmune conditions were rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, lupus, myositis, mixed connective tissue disease, and scleroderma.

The same 2019 study also purported that PTSD may also be responsible for triggering autoimmune disorders among 9/11 victims and first responders. This confirms other research on the connection between chronic stress, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and autoimmune disease.

Many victims of 9/11 can have their health insurance covered or receive a financial payout from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the World Trade Center Health Program. However, autoimmune diseases are not acknowledged by the compensation fund nor the health program. This means that those who suffer from autoimmune diseases are ineligible for free health care, and cannot receive compensation for their suffering. Most of the covered conditions on the list include acute injuries, lung conditions, cancer, and mental health issues.

Multiple petitions among 9/11 victims have requested to have autoimmune diseases added to the list of covered conditions, to no avail; the federal government has cited lack of sufficient evidence proving the link between autoimmunity and exposures from 9/11. Another issue is that autoimmune diseases may have a genetic component, making it even more difficult to prove that the development of these conditions was caused by exposures during 9/11, and not the patients’ own genetic makeup.

So for now, first responders like Waddleton will have to wait until the research catches up. Waddleton manages a Facebook group for 9/11 emergency responders who have suffered from autoimmune diseases after the event, and has seen first-hand the effects that it’s had on these patients.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said. “They left everyone else hanging. This wasn’t supposed to be my life.”

To read more about this story, visit the NBC news website.