A promising new compound discovered by University researchers is offering guidance and hope on the pathway toward developing a potential cure for systemic lupus erythematosus, a chronic autoimmune disease affecting as many as 1.4 million Americans.

More commonly known as lupus, the disease occurs when the body’s immune system fails to produce antibodies that guard the body against viruses, bacteria and other harmful foreign substances. Without these antibodies, the immune system loses its ability to differentiate between foreign substances and its own healthy cells, leading the body to attack its own tissue and organs, which may include the joints, kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, blood or skin that result in painful inflammation. The most common cause of illness and death by lupus is inflammation of the kidney.

Lupus can affect men and women of all ages, though the 90 percent diagnosed with the disease are women, and 80 percent of those develop it between the ages of 15 and 45.

“Because we do not yet understand what triggers lupus, it has been very difficult to develop lupus-specific therapies,” said Gary Glick, professor of biological chemistry and one of the lead study authors.

The study revealed the potential efficacy of a compound known as Bz-423 which is closely related to such anti-anxiety medications as Valium and Xanax, however Bz-423 does not cause drowsiness, nor does it lead to addiction. Ideally, the Bz-423 compound will initiate a reaction that will cause the diseased cells to kill themselves in a cell-suicide process known as apoptosis.

Unlike traditional medications for lupus which can kill healthy cells in addition to the diseased ones, “Our compound, on the other hand, goes in and kills the bad players but leaves the good players alone,” Glick said. Glick and his team of researchers discovered the Bz-423 compound’s ability to kill immune cells after examining a family of related chemicals known as benzodiazepines which, unlike drugs previously used to treat lupus, do not damage DNA or interfere with cell metabolism.

“We suspected that any benzodiazepines that were capable of killing cells would possess unique modes of action and perhaps be better at targeting disease-causing cells,” he said.

Their experiments showed that in the lupus-infected mice treated with Bz-423, 84 percent did not develop lupus-related kidney disease. In lupus-infected mice that were not treated, 60 percent developed kidney disease.

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