How are autoimmune diseases treated?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Most autoimmune diseases can't be cured, but they can be controlled to some degree. If the autoimmune disease causes a deficiency, this sometimes can be corrected by replacing what is missing. A number of diseases fall into this category. Type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, creates a deficiency of insulin, the hormone required for the proper absorption of sugar. By injecting insulin, the diabetic patient replaces what is lost. Similarly, patients with blood disorders in which the blood is being destroyed can have blood transfusions.

Another focus of today's treatments is to prevent or slow down progressive organ and tissue damage by reducing inflammation. Today's immunosuppressive medications -- corticosteroids, methotrexate, cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, and cyclosporine -- are somewhat double-edged swords. Although they successfully reduce inflammation, they also suppress the overall immune response, which means you're less able to fight off infections. And immunosuppressive medications have other harmful side effects.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to search for better, safer treatments, including new drugs. And for patients who have run out of other options, stem cell transplantation may be a possibility, but that therapy is still experimental.

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