Five people with the autoimmune condition lupus are now in remission after receiving a version of CAR-T therapy, which was originally developed for cancer
15 September 2022
A high-tech cell therapy used to treat cancer has been repurposed as a treatment for lupus, an autoimmune condition that can cause joint, kidney and heart damage.
CAR T-cell therapy has put all five people with lupus treated so far into remission. The participants have been followed up for an average of 8 months, with the first person treated 17 months ago. “That’s kind of unheard of,” says Chris Wincup at King’s College London, who wasn’t involved in the study. “This is incredibly exciting.”
But it is too soon to know how long the remissions will last, says Georg Schett at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, who was part of the study team.
CAR T-cells were developed to treat blood cancers that arise when B cells, a type of immune cell that normally makes antibodies, start multiplying out of control.
The approach requires taking a sample of immune cells from a person’s blood, genetically altering them in the lab so they attack B cells and then infusing them back into the individual’s blood. It seems to put 4 out of 10 people with these kinds of cancers into remission.
Lupus, also called systemic lupus erythematosus, is caused by the immune system mistakenly reacting against people’s own DNA. This is driven by B cells making antibodies against DNA released from dying cells.
It is currently treated with medicines that suppress the immune system or, in more severe cases, with drugs that kill B cells. But the treatments can’t kill all the B cells, and if the disease flares up badly, some people develop kidney failure and inflammation of their heart and brain.
Schett and his team wondered whether using CAR T-cells to hunt down all the B cells would be more effective. Within three months of receiving the treatment, all five participants were in remission, without needing to take any other medicines to control their symptoms.
The CAR T-cells were barely detectable after one month, and after three and a half months, the volunteers’ B cells started to return, having been produced by stem cells in bone marrow. These new B cells didn’t react against the DNA.
We don’t know what normally causes B cells to start reacting against DNA in people with lupus, so it is possible that some kind of trigger may start the process happening again, says Wincup.
The achievement means CAR T-cells may also be useful against other autoimmune diseases that are driven by antibodies, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), in which the immune system attacks nerves, says Schett.
Another radical treatment for MS involves “rebooting” the immune system by destroying it with chemotherapy. By comparison, “CAR T-cells would be less invasive and more tolerable”, he says.
But it is too soon to know how effective CAR T-cells will be for autoimmune conditions, says Wincup. “This is a small number of patients, so we don’t know if this is going to be the result for everyone.”
When used in cancer, CAR T-cells are expensive to create for each person, so they may only be used for autoimmune conditions in people with severe disease when no other treatments are available, he says.
Journal reference: Nature Medicine , DOI: 10.1038/s41591-022-02017-5
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