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Women’s immune systems are different from men’s. “Women have a stronger antibody response than men,” says Dr. Tammy Utset, a rheumatologist at the U. of C. Medical Center. Sometimes, though, something goes awry and women produce antibodies against their own tissue—a development that can lead to lupus, a chronic immune disorder that can cause severe fatigue, rashes, sores, hair loss, and organ damage. Victims are typically in their 20s and 30s. (A researcher named Patrick Wilson originally suggested that the ability to develop superantibodies was once an evolutionary advantage—comparable to the way the sickle cell gave Africans resistance to malaria.)
Lupus is nine times more common in women than in men. Researchers aren’t completely sure why. “Women in general do tend to respond immunologically with antibodies rather than cellular defenses when faced with germs or vaccines,” says Utset. Hormones may be a culprit—especially because the onset of lupus tends to come before and during pregnancy, when estrogen levels are high. (The disease rarely starts after menopause, when estrogen levels are low.) “Sex hormones modulate the immune response,” says Dr. Rosalind Ramsey-Goldman, a rheumatologist at Northwestern’s Feinberg School. She is trying to find biomarkers that indicate who might get immune disorders such as lupus.
So far researchers have largely focused on treatments for lupus. But at Rush, they are developing a survey tool to measure quality of life and are working on better medications. “The medicine list [for treating lupus] hasn’t changed in the last 50 years,” says Dr. Meenakshi Jolly, the rheumatologist who directs Rush’s lupus clinic. Frequently used corticosteroids cause weight gain and weakness. Her lab was part of a phase two trial for a new medicine, Benlysta (not yet approved by the FDA), that may decrease the need for steroids. At this point, the drug has been administered to about 400 patients who are participating in a clinical trial.
HEART DISEASE | FERTILITY | PREGNANCY | BREAST AND OVARIAN CANCER
CERVICAL AND ENDOMETRIAL CANCER | OSTEOPOROSIS
HEADACHES, MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS, AND OTHER NEUROLOGIC DISORDERS | DEPRESSION
EATING DISORDERS | INCONTINENCE | IMMUNE DISORDERS | SLEEP DISORDERS
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