Autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases overview

The immune system is the body's defense system against infection, disease, and foreign substances. Once stimulated, the immune system automatically turns on to locate and fight invading cells.

An autoimmune disease develops when the body's immune system fails to recognize normal body tissues and attacks and destroys them as if they were foreign rather than attacking an outside organism. The cause is not fully understood, but in some cases it is thought that autoimmune diseases are triggered by exposure to microorganisms or other environmental causes, especially in people with a genetic predisposition to the disorder. A single organ or multiple organs and tissues may be affected.

There are nearly 150 autoimmune disorders. While there are no cures for these disorders, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) provides expert care for people to maintain a high quality of life.

If your condition requires a bone marrow transplant, you should know that we are one of 15 centers whose transplant patients achieved higher-than-expected survival rates, according to a multi-year study by the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. The study compared patients at more than 165 bone marrow transplant centers in the United States. We’ve performed more bone marrow transplants than any other institution in the world. The Hutchinson Center pioneered the use of bone-marrow transplants as a treatment for blood and autoimmune diseases over 40 years ago. Since then, many patients with serious autoimmune diseases have come from around the world to receive bone marrow transplants at SCCA. 

Bone marrow The soft, spongy material in the center of your bones that produces all your blood cells, such as white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. Bone marrow transplant The process of treating disease with high doses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both. Bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells are given after treatment to help the body make more blood cells. The process of treating disease with high doses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both. Because this treatment destroys the bone marrow’s ability to produce blood cells, bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells are given after treatment to help the body make more blood cells.

Our Expertise

Patients with autoimmune diseases may be seen at SCCA , UW Medical Center, or Seattle Children’s, depending upon their age and diagnosis.

Each person's immune system is unique and treatment varies from person to person. Treatment usually includes medications to alleviate symptoms, whether it be simply non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, to reduce symptoms depending on the specific disease, or drugs like Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) or Azathioprine (Imuran) to suppress or slow down the immune system and thus slow down progression of the disease. Some may even be treated with a stem cell (bone marrow) transplant, which occurs at SCCA’s Transplant Clinic.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Hutchinson Center), an SCCA parent organization, is taking the lead on several fronts in treating autoimmune diseases and has developed clinical trials using stem cell transplantation for treating severe autoimmune diseases. 

Clinical trial A type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people. These studies test new methods of screening, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of a disease. Cyclophosphamide A drug used to treat many types of cancer. Cyclophosphamide damages the cell’s DNA and may kill cancer cells. It may also lower the body’s immune response. A drug used to treat many types of cancer and a certain type of kidney disease in children. Cyclophosphamide damages the cell’s DNA and may kill cancer cells. It may also lower the body’s immune response. Cyclophosphamide is a type of alkylating agent. Progression In medicine, the course of a disease, such as cancer, as it becomes worse or spreads in the body. Stem cell A cell from which other types of cells develop. For example, blood cells develop from blood-forming stem cells. Symptom A physical or mental problem that a person experiences that may indicate a disease or condition. Symptoms cannot be seen and do not show up on medical tests. A physical or mental problem that a person experiences that may indicate a disease or condition. Symptoms cannot be seen and do not show up on medical tests. Some examples of symptoms are headache, fatigue, nausea and pain.
Test for Lupus

Hutchinson Center scientists have developed a test for lupus that will help physicians make more accurate diagnostic and prognostic decisions for patients and therefore help those patients get appropriate treatment. Diagnosis for this disease is complex due to the similarity of symptoms with other autoimmune diseases. In an experiment, Mark Roth, a basic science investigator at Hutchinson Center, and, Karla Neugebauer, a former post doctoral fellow in his lab, discovered that lupus patients make antibodies to SR proteins, a family of splicing proteins discovered by the lab. Hutchinson Center has filed for patent protection on this assay system. A diagnostic kit based on Roth's assay will identify a population of 50 to 70 percent of lupus patients who react positively to SR proteins. To bring this work to the benefit of the public, Hutchinson Center researchers spent two years improving the test kit using the rigorous guidelines established by the Food and Drug Administration, which gave its consent for U.S. distribution in 2002.

Antibody A protein made by immune system cells and released into the blood. Antibodies defend the body against foreign substances, such as bacteria. Symptom A physical or mental problem that a person experiences that may indicate a disease or condition. Symptoms cannot be seen and do not show up on medical tests. A physical or mental problem that a person experiences that may indicate a disease or condition. Symptoms cannot be seen and do not show up on medical tests. Some examples of symptoms are headache, fatigue, nausea and pain.
Genetic Research

Hutchinson Center is also leading a global team to accelerate the investigation of immune-related genes. A cluster of nearly 220 genes known as the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) gene complex holds clues to these and other medical issues. In search of answers, the National Institutes of Health launched a $20 million initiative in 2001 to catalog the HLA gene complex. The effort among 200 laboratories in more than 70 countries is lead by Hutchinson Center's Dr. John Hansen. The group will set up a centralized HLA gene database. For patients, the benefits include finding better matches for bone-marrow transplant patients. 

If your condition is one that requires a bone-marrow transplant, be sure to visit the Bone Marrow Transplant section.

Antigen A foreign substance, such as bacteria, that causes the body’s immune system to respond by making antibodies. Antibodies defend the body against antigens. Bone marrow The soft, spongy material in the center of your bones that produces all your blood cells, such as white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. Gene The functional and physical unit of heredity passed from parent to offspring. Genes are pieces of DNA, and most genes contain the information for making a specific protein. Gene The functional and physical unit of heredity passed from parent to offspring. Genes are pieces of DNA, and most genes contain the information for making a specific protein. White blood cell A type of blood cell that is made in the bone marrow and found in the blood and lymph tissue. White blood cells are part of the body’s immune system and help the body fight infection and other diseases. A type of blood cell that is made in the bone marrow and found in the blood and lymph tissue. White blood cells are part of the body’s immune system. They help the body fight infection and other diseases. Types of white blood cells include granulocytes (neutrophils, eosinophils and basophils), monocytes and lymphocytes (T cells and B cells). Checking the number of white blood cells in the blood is usually part of a complete blood cell (CBC) test. It may be used to look for conditions such as infection, inflammation, allergies and leukemia. Also called leukocyte and WBC.

Facts

An autoimmune disease develops when the body's immune system fails to recognize normal body tissues and attacks and destroys them as if they were foreign, rather than attacking an outside organism. The cause is not fully understood, but in some cases it is thought that autoimmune diseases are triggered by exposure to microorganisms or other environmental causes, especially in people with a genetic predisposition to the disorder. A single organ or multiple organs and tissues may be affected.

Treatment

Treatment for autoimmune diseases may include drugs that suppress the immune system as well as therapies that target specific organs affected. There are no known cures for autoimmune diseases. In some cases, however, stem cell transplants are used to prevent the progression of the disease and to lessen symptoms.

Progression In medicine, the course of a disease, such as cancer, as it becomes worse or spreads in the body. Stem cell A cell from which other types of cells develop. For example, blood cells develop from blood-forming stem cells. Symptom A physical or mental problem that a person experiences that may indicate a disease or condition. Symptoms cannot be seen and do not show up on medical tests. A physical or mental problem that a person experiences that may indicate a disease or condition. Symptoms cannot be seen and do not show up on medical tests. Some examples of symptoms are headache, fatigue, nausea and pain.

Providers

At SCCA, you receive care from a team of providers with extensive experience in your disease. Your team includes physicians, a patient care coordinator, a registered nurse, an advanced practice provider and others, based on your needs. You also have access to experts like nutritionists, social workers, acupuncturists, psychiatrists and more who specialize in supporting people with cancer or blood disorders.