This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I’m Bob Doughty.
BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. This week, we talk about a sickness called lupus and other autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases affect the immune system, the body’s natural defenses for fighting disease.
BOB DOUGHTY: The immune system normally protects the body against foreign materials, such as viruses and bacteria. Autoimmune diseases result from a failure of the body’s own defenses against disease. The immune system loses its ability to tell the difference between foreign materials and its own cells. So the body starts attacking its own organs and tissues.
BARBARA KLEIN: There are three kinds of lupus. Discoid lupus affects only the skin and can be identified by red marks on the face or neck. These marks on the skin can also be a sign of another form of lupus called systemic lupus. Systemic lupus can affect almost any organ or organ system in the body. When people talk about lupus, they usually mean the systemic form of the disease.
Some medicines can cause what is called drug-induced lupus. This form of lupus usually goes away when the patient stops using the medicines.
BOB DOUGHTY: High body temperature and pain in the elbows or knees are often signs of lupus. Other signs are red marks on the skin and lack of iron in the body. The person may also feel extremely tired.
At different times, the effects of lupus can be either mild or serious. The signs of the disease can come and go. This makes identifying the disease difficult. There is no single test to tell if someone has lupus. Many people with lupus also suffer from depression.
Lupus can lead to other health problems. Women with lupus are at greater risk of developing heart disease. And, between thirty and fifty percent of lupus patients will develop lupus-related kidney disease.
BARBARA KLEIN: Lupus affects an estimated one million five hundred thousand
people in the United States. Experts are not sure what causes lupus. But the disease has been known to attack members of the same family.
The singer Lady Gaga announced earlier this month that she was tested for lupus. She told CNN television that the disease is genetic, and has affected members of her family. One of them is thought to have died from lupus. The singer said the testing shows that she is, in her words, borderline positive for the disease.
BOB DOUGHTY: Scientists have identified genes they believe are linked to lupus. They hope studying these genes more closely could help in development of new treatments for the disease, and possibly a cure. Recent studies also support a theory that a combination of genes is linked to the development of lupus.
Other suspected causes include antibiotic drugs, mental or physical tension, infections and hormones. In fact, hormones might explain why lupus affects women more often than men.
The Lupus Foundation of America says more than ninety percent of the people with lupus are women. Scientists do not know why women are more at risk. They think it might involve female hormones, like estrogen. Another idea is that it could involve the foreign cells left in a woman’s body after a pregnancy.
BARBARA KLEIN: There is currently no cure for lupus. Yet doctors have developed ways of treating the disease. Treatments are based on the condition and needs of each patient. No two individuals have the exact same problems. A treatment could include a combination of stress-reduction methods and drugs like painkillers and steroids. Anti-malaria drugs have been effective.