Medical research

A lethal autoimmune disease succumbs to stem cells

People with the tissue disorder scleroderma live longer after an innovative treatment.

Stem-cell transplants can help people to survive a rare and deadly form of the autoimmune disease scleroderma.

Scleroderma causes the skin to harden and become immobile. In its most severe form, it affects the internal organs, and is usually fatal. Individuals who receive conventional drug therapy today are no more likely to survive the disease than patients 40 years ago.

Keith Sullivan at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and his colleagues tested an innovative approach in a multi-year clinical trial. Stem-cell transplants given after chemotherapy and total-body irradiation significantly improved survival rates, reduced the likelihood of relapse and left some people disease-free.

The results are consistent with two previous stem-cell trials, and should help to establish stem-cell transplants as a standard treatment for individuals with severe scleroderma, according to the researchers.