French scientists have discovered that lupus patients have excess blood cells called platelets – small cell fragments that circulate in the blood, clumping together to form clots. These excess and overly-active platelets trigger production of inflammation-promoting proteins called interferons. Tests on mice given anti-platelet medication showed reduced lupus symptoms and increased life expectancy. The results suggest that anticoagulant drugs like clopidogrel (Plavix) could prevent lupus flare ups in people, and the scientists hope to start clinical trials on humans soon.
Lupus is a chronic, incurable auto-immune disease where the body’s immune system turns on itself, attacking its own tissue. The resulting inflammation causes pain and damages organs, particularly the kidneys. The most common symptoms include rashes, fever, hair loss, fatigue, aches and pains, and inflammation of the arteries and veins, tendons, brain, kidney and the membrane surrounding the lungs. Serious cases can be life threatening, with patients suffering kidney failure and out of control infections.
About one-and-a-half million Americans have lupus, which can be diagnosed with blood tests. It effects nine times more women than men, and usually strikes between the ages of 15 and 50. Its cause has not yet known, although researchers have identified genetic, hormonal and environmental factors. Some lupus patients have only mild and/or transitory flare ups which may go undiagnosed, while others are debilitated by a more aggressive form of the disease. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antimalarial medications are used to treat milder cases, while more serious attacks are treated with immune system suppressing medications and corticosteroids. There has not been a new medication for the treatment of lupus in 50 years. Current treatments are not 100 percent effective, and can have side effects.
The anti-clotting medication Plavix is the second highest-selling drug in the world (behind the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor). It makes platelets less “sticky” and likely to clump together to form clots, which can lodge in the heart, lungs or brain and cause a heart attack or stroke. Anti-clotting drugs, also called blood thinners, are widely prescribed as a preventative measure for persons who have experienced a heart attack or stroke, or who suffer from heart disease or poor blood circulation due to hardened and narrowed arteries (atherosclerosis).
Being able to treat lupus patients with blood thinner pills could dramatically improve their quality of life, according to the researchers. Plavix can be expensive in the US, where it’s patented until 2012, but cheaper generic Plavix is available in Europe and from Canada.