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. 

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. 

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.

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.


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.


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.