Researchers from Monash University reported that a drug approved in the 1990s to boost the immune system showed potential as a new treatment for lupus. Findings from the study are published in Nature Medicine.

The study demonstrated for the first time that interleukin-2 (IL-2), a natural immune system protein, can help restore balance to the overactive immune system for patients with lupus. The drug may enter clinical trials for the treatment of lupus in the near future. 

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For the study, the drug’s dose assessed for treating lupus was much less than the dose used for treating cancers. Patients aged 18-65 years whose lupus was not responding adequately to standard treatments were enrolled. Included patients met the 1997 ACR criteria for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) diagnosis and had at least 4 weeks of stable background treatment with corticosteroids (≤1mg/kg daily prednisone or equivalent) and/or with antimalarials, NSAIDs, or immunosuppressants. 

IL-2 was administered to 40 patients and 15 patients received conventional therapy. The median duration of SLE was 5 years. Treatment with the drug demonstrated it calms the hyperactive immune system through various mechanisms. 

Findings from the study indicated that treatment with low-dose recombinant human IL-2 selectively modulated the level of regulatory T (Treg) cells, follicular helper T (TFH) cells, and IL-17 producing helper T (TH17) cells but not TH1 or TH2 cells. These effects were accompanied by decreases in disease activity in patients with SLE.

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