Diabetes drug shows promise treating lupus - U.S. researchers

ORLANDO, Fla., Feb 11 (Reuters) - A common diabetes drug could be part of a two-pronged treatment to reverse the effects of lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease harmful to body tissue that often causes pain and extreme fatigue, researchers reported on Wednesday.

University of Florida researchers reported findings from a two-year study using the diabetes drug metformin in mice and human blood cells in a laboratory setting in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The findings could become a new treatment option for lupus, for which there is no cure, according to a news release from the University of Florida.

More than 16,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the Lupus Foundation of America, which says 5 million people worldwide are believed to suffer from the disease. Women during their child-bearing years are most affected, although men can develop the disease too.

In lupus, a person’s antibodies, which normally fight against bacteria and viruses, instead attack healthy tissue.

The white blood cells secreting the antibodies feed mostly on blood sugars called glucose, said lead researcher Laurence Morel, a pathology and immunology specialist at the University of Florida medical school.

Her tests found that treatment with the first-line type 2 diabetes drug metformin - in combination with a glucose inhibitor - slowed the metabolism of the white blood cells. They returned them to normal functioning, Morel said.

The testing used white blood cells from patients with lupus, as well as mice, Morel said.

Morel said she got the idea from research in which cancer was treated successfully by limiting the metabolism of cancer cells. From the many existing drugs inhibiting metabolism, Morel said she picked two that had good results in mouth cancer.

“I was a little bit lucky in that the first two I tried happened to work in combination. It was an educated guess,” said Morel, who is also exploring other drug combinations.

Using an existing drug will be cost effective, which could accelerate the process for federally approved clinical trials, which is one of the researchers’ next steps, she said.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Alliance for Lupus Research.

Morel said the disease - which can lead to scarring, blood clots and kidney, lung and cardiovascular problems - is currently treated using steroids and immunosuppressant drugs, which have negative side effects. (Editing by Letitia Stein and Tom Brown)