Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that can damage organs by causing the body’s immune system to turn against itself and attack its own tissues. Although anybody can develop lupus, it strikes women of child-bearing age at the highest rates. Those who are minorities are especially vulnerable. While only about 10 per cent of women with lupus who are white progress to kidney failure, about 20 to 40 per cent of women who are black or Hispanic do so.
Gary Gilkeson, associate dean at the Medical University of South Carolina in the US and chair of the Lupus Foundation of America’s medical-scientific advisory committee, says the disease is incredibly challenging to diagnose because it looks like many other conditions in its early stages. People with lupus may first experience fatigue, joint pain or a little bit of rash on their bodies and can go for a long time before their doctors realise it is more serious. Other symptoms can include bloody or foamy urine, unexplained weight gain, high blood pressure or swelling in the legs, ankles or around the eyes.
“Many people see two or four physicians before it is picked up that’s what the problem is. It is difficult to diagnose early on, but the earlier the diagnosis the better the chance of us catching it before it gets too out of hand,” Gilkeson said.
No one knows exactly what causes lupus. More than 60 genes have been identified as putting people at higher risk, but environmental factors also seem to play a large role. Some scientists believe that certain viral infections may trigger lupus. There is evidence that different organic pollutants and even exposure to radiation through substances like uranium could activate the disorder.
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Some of the most important research on lupus going on right now involves early identification of people who may develop lupus before they have full-blown symptoms. The National Institutes of Health is funding a study that looks at people with a certain blood-based indicator and one or two symptoms that suggest lupus. Some of those people will actually progress to the disease and some will not, and the goal is to try to figure out what the difference is between the two groups.
While kidney failure is a serious, life-threatening complication of lupus, the number of people having successful treatment with transplants is increasing. People have two kidneys but need only one. So a growing number of patients have managed to find friends or family members who are matches and can donate, or they participate in “kidney exchanges” in which a friend of one patient will donate to a stranger who is a match in exchange for the second patient’s friend donating to the first patient.
In Gomez’s case, the donor was one of her BFFs, actress Francia Raisa, who has appeared on The Secret Life of the American Teenager and played a hockey-player-turned-figure-skater in one of the recent remakes of The Cutting Edge.
The good news for patients like Gomez, Gilkeson said, is that many women with lupus who undergo transplants go on to live long, healthy lives. There’s something about the immuno-suppressant medicines that transplant patients must take to prevent rejection of the new organs that also keeps lupus at bay.
“I think it’s important to emphasise that lupus patients can lead relatively normal lives,” he said. “She will be able to resume her career, go to college if she wants, and having children is possible.”