Big Lupus Wheels Keep on Turning… Slowly, Anyway.

“I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.” –Flannery O’Connor

After I posted the photo of Flannery O’Connor yesterday, I went back and read more of her letters and thought about what it must have been like to live through Georgia summers, with lupus, in the 1950s and 60s. More than that, though, I thought about what it must have meant to be diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus back then—back when your only options for treatment were corticosteroids and aspirin, back when it took so long to get a diagnosis and the treatments were so limited that it was basically a death sentence.

In the 1960s, scientists discovered that the anti-malarial drug Plaquenil was effective in both rheumatoid arthritis and SLE. It has been one of the only drugs approved for the treatment of lupus. Those of you playing along at home may be laughing, sardonically, since the treatment protocol for lupus has changed little since the ’60s, just swap out the aspirin for ibuprofen or naproxen and add a dash of low-dose antidepressants for the co-incident fibromyalgia.

Given this history, then, it’s no surprise that most of us were thrilled to hear that Benlysta, heralded as the “first new lupus drug in 56 years!” was approved by the FDA this past March.  Benlysta (belimumab) is a medication delivered by IV that targets B-cells, a part of the immune response that seems to be out of whack in lupus patients. (The science is significantly more complex than that, involving an intricate dance of activators, antigens, modulators and interactors. If you like that sort of thing, look here for a PubMed citation.)

But the emergence of Benlysta on the scene isn’t exactly a magic cure-all. In fact, the FDA vote was extremely close because of concerns that the drug was only marginally effective. This short piece from the Associated Press somehow manages to capture the breathless excitement and serious concerns about the drug all at once, both of which also come through in a slight muted form in the FDA press release. Among the serious concerns: the drug appears to be ineffective in many patients of African descent (who, by the way, tend to be diagnosed with lupus in much higher numbers along with other non-white populations). What the press release and other news coverage also frequently fail to mention is the exorbitant price tag for Benlysta and similar biologic drugs used for rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Like thousands-of-dollars-every-month expensive. Like don’t-expect-your-lousy-hmo-insurance-or-medicaid-to-cover-it expensive.

Luckily, scientists are still hard at work to map the far corners of our immune systems, dysfunctional or not. The most recent issue of The Rheumatologist includes an update on research into the role of T-cells in lupus that could lead to more effective treatments for more people. And I’m excited about that. What I’m also excited about is my chance to participate in the American College of Rheumatology’s “Advocates for Arthritis” Program. When I go to Washington this fall to meet with members of Congress about the pressing need for research funding for arthritis, I will cite these studies, and the studies that led to the development of Benlysta, and their importance in improving the everyday lives as well as the long-term prognosis for people with lupus. Fifty-six years is not ok, people!

O’Connor, diagnosed at age 25 in 1951, outlived the five years that her doctors gave her with an additional nine, making it almost to her 40th birthday. I can only imagine the pain and fatigue that she worked through during those years while she managed to complete two novels and several collections of short stories, even as her body began to fail.  Most of us now, diagnosed with Lupus in our 20s and 30s, have a much better chance of having a “normal” lifespan, simply because there are more ways to treat the complications from lupus. We’ve gotten better at catching kidney, lung, and heart involvement earlier and addressing these issues and slowing their progression before they become life threatening. We know about the Faustian bargain of long term use of prednisone and other corticosteroids. And I hope—with active and public communities on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites (hi, chronic babe! hi, but you don’t look sick!)— we are getting better at shedding the stigma of having a chronic illness and speaking out about what we need. The magic of the internet lets us all be activists, even in our pajamas. And that is really something to be excited about.

Edited to add: This entry was featured on chronicbabe.com in Blog Carnival #34: What’s HOT?