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Scleroderma, an autoimmune disease, tends to afflict middle-age women and can affect many parts of the body, inside and out.
Like many autoimmune ailments, scleroderma remains a great unknown. Despite decades of research, the cause of this rare and complicated disease has yet to be discovered. But the good news is that doctors have a pretty clear understanding of how scleroderma progresses — a natural history, they call it — and are better than ever at extending and easing their patients’ lives.
“Lots of patients and lots of doctors used to consider it a ‘black box’ disease, a complete mystery, with little that could be done,” said Dr. Philip J. Clements of the University of California, Los Angeles, who is a scleroderma specialist. “Now there’s a body of evidence that tells us what to watch out for, and when.”
Experts now know, for example, that the gradual hardening of tissues and blood vessels that is a hallmark of scleroderma usually starts on the hands and face, with skin thickening, pitted scars and cool, pale fingertips among the earliest symptoms. Damage can then progress inward to internal organs, though the course varies widely from patient to patient. Of the 10,000 cases diagnosed among Americans each year, mainly women, a small subset will die quickly. But many others are able to manage their condition with a variety of treatments and have normal life expectancies.
Doctors also now know that if a patient’s internal organs are going to be affected as well as the skin, that is likely to happen in the first four or five years of the disease. So early diagnosis and close monitoring of the heart, lungs and kidneys are vitally important.
They have also learned that steroids, once viewed as a cure-all for immune disorders, can worsen the effects of scleroderma, especially in the kidneys, and should be used with caution.
“Learning which drugs to avoid was itself a big step,” said Dr. John Varga, the Gallagher Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University and chairman of the Medical Advisory Board for the Scleroderma Foundation, a nonprofit group that sponsors research and support for patients and families.
Kidney disease used to cause 90 percent of scleroderma-related deaths until the advent of a class of blood pressure drugs called angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ACE, inhibitors in the 1980s. ACE inhibitors prevent kidney damage by slowing down the chemicals that cause the muscles surrounding blood vessels to contract. Complications in the kidneys now account for only 14 percent of scleroderma deaths, Dr. Steen said.
The lungs are still a challenge. About 80 percent of scleroderma patients develop some form of lung problem — either pulmonary hypertension, due to hardening of the veins and arteries in the lung, or pulmonary fibrosis, in which the lung tissue becomes inflamed and then thickened with scarring. Some patients develop both. Either way, breathing becomes more difficult as the lungs become less pliable.
“If you die of a scleroderma-related problem, half of those deaths are from lung disease,” said Dr. Virginia Steen, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the Rheumatology Fellowship Program there. She wrote a seminal 2007 article that documented the shift from kidney disease to pulmonary disease as the biggest cause of death among scleroderma patients.
One successful remedy called Revatio, routinely prescribed since 2005, came from an unexpected source: Viagra. Repackaged from a little blue diamond to a round white tablet and renamed for marketing, dosage and insurance purposes, the drug works by relaxing the blood vessels and improving blood flow, whether for erectile or lung dysfunction.
“No one could understand why all these women were taking it four times a day,” said Frannie Waldron, chief executive of the Scleroderma Foundation.
Doctors also have a growing arsenal of experimental treatments and potential cures, some of which are risky.
Among them is cyclophosphamide, or Cytoxan, a powerful but highly toxic cancer drug that acts on the immune system. The drug decreases the inflammation that causes pulmonary fibrosis and has been used on scleroderma patients for the last 10 years.
But cytoxan has dangerous side effects, including an increased risk of bladder cancer, and usually is not given for more than a year. Moreover, the fibrosis seems to start again once drug treatments stop. Several studies involving the medication are under way, as well as efforts to find alternative treatments, many of them sponsored by drug companies.
Another big push involves stem cell transplant, an extremely risky process in which doctors try to reset the patient’s immune system and bypass the glitch that causes scleroderma. The procedure is the subject of a National Institutes of Health study called the SCOT trial, for Scleroderma: Cyclophosphamides or Transplantation?
Similar to a bone marrow transplant, doctors first draw the patient’s blood and extract the stem cells, the highly malleable building blocks that are thought to be free of the seeds of scleroderma. The patient is then subjected to high doses of radiation or chemotherapy with Cytoxan to kill the bone marrow. The last step is to reinfuse the stem cells, in the hopes that they replicate themselves in a healthy form free of disease.
The study will compare the benefits of the stem cell transplant with giving patients just monthly doses, but high ones, of Cytoxan. Preliminary results have been promising, several experts said.
“You’d think you’d have trouble recruiting for this,” said Dr. Arthur C. Theodore of Boston University, one of the investigators in the project. “But scleroderma patients are desperate.”
Sources: The New York Times