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Pop star Selena Gomez recently shocked her fans when she revealed that she hid from the public eye this past summer because she needed a kidney transplant. Gomez, 25, who in 2015 revealed that she was battling lupus, was quoted as saying she needed a new kidney to improve her “overall health.”
As often is the case, her celebrity shone a spotlight on lupus and autoimmune disease – disorders in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the body. About 1.5 million Americans have lupus, and it strikes mostly women between the ages of 15 and 44. The incidence of lupus has nearly tripled in the United States over the past four decades, but scientists and researchers still don’t know what causes the disease.
James S. Grober, MD, Head of the Division of Rheumatology at NorthShore, helps us understand lupus and its complications.
When Selena Gomez first revealed she had lupus, she was quoted as saying, “I was diagnosed with lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy. I could’ve had a stroke.” Can a young woman who looks so healthy suffer a stroke from lupus? The short answer is “yes” although most lupus patients live full, healthy lives without serious complications. The problem is when the disease becomes severe. The immune system creates antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues and organs – the kidneys, brain, heart, lungs, blood, skin and joints. The resulting inflammation can increase the tendency of blood to clot. So lupus can lead to premature cardiovascular disease and stroke among young women.
How do you know whether a case will remain mild or become severe? Lupus is highly individualized, and no two cases are exactly alike. Blood tests are used to both confirm and monitor the progression of the disease. Blood tests can check kidney function, blood clotting tendency and inflammation. We usually monitor the blood every three to six months to check for any progression of the disease.
So blood tests can confirm a lupus diagnosis? Lupus can be very difficult to diagnose. No single test can definitively determine whether a person has lupus. But several laboratory tests and a clinical exam can help us make the diagnosis. Positive blood test results for ANA (antinuclear antibodies) and anti-dsDNA (anti-doublestranded DNA) are among the tests that may indicate lupus.
Treatment can involve some pretty strong drugs, such as chemotherapy drugs or steroids. Is there any research being done on new treatments or drugs? New drug development in lupus is very challenging because of the complexity of the disease, but a number of new treatments are being studied and may lead to new options for patients with lupus.