Local News

Clinical Trial Shows Progress For Patients With Autoimmune Disorders

Posted August 17, 2006 8:45 a.m. EDT

— New hope for millions of Americans with immune system disorders is coming out of Duke University.

Six years ago, Tracye Wheless of Louisburg first noticed unusual fatique and sore, tight skin. It took four years before she discovered there was a name for it.

"They said it was scleraderma and I'd never heard of it," said Wheless.

With scleroderma, the immune system attacks the connective tissues that support the skin and internal organs. For Wheless, it has also progressed to her lungs.

"The fibrosis builds up and once that happens, they can't reverse the damage," she said.

Wheless joined a Duke study comparing standard chemotherapy treatment, which she received, to a stem cell transplant.

Doctors harvest adult stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow and store them. Dr. Keith Sullivan, of Duke's division of cellular therapy, said by using irradiation and chemotherapy, the immune system is destroyed and rerescued with the stored cells.

Sullivan saw improvements with the stem cell transplant patients. It stabilized the lung disease and improved the quality of life.

"(It's) markedly improved because their skin softened and went back to normal and that's kind of big news in this business," Sullivan said.

Although Wheless only received the standard chemotherapy treatment, she saw improvement in her skin.

"You can pinch it now where before you couldn't because it was so tight," Wheless said.

Wheless said what she is really excited about is that progress is being made for all patients with scleroderma.

"There might be a cure or treatment that will work for people," she said.

Researchers are currently in the middle of the seven-year study. If the study continues to show success for stem cell transplantation, the therapy could be extended to other severe autoimmune disorders. They include multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Type 1 diabetes.