BALTIMORE – Arden Baughman has become incapacitated over the last 14 years due to an autoimmune disease called peripheral neuropathy.
The 77-year-old Towson resident is now unable to stand as a result of his disease, which has broken down the nerve tissue in the brain necessary to send messages to his muscles.
His wife, Nancy, has watched his condition deteriorate. All his treatments, moreover, “have side effects and these effects are debilitating,” she says.
Seeking fresh information, Mrs. Baughman joined some 220 people Sunday in attending a free public forum to hear scientists and doctors discuss recent thinking on autoimmune diseases.
A healthy immune system produces antibodies that attack foreign bacteria and diseases. But in autoimmune diseases, the body’s immune system produces specific auto-antibodies, or proteins that destroy healthy tissues and organs. Some of the afflicted suffer multiple autoimmune diseases simultaneously.
Many scientists who attended an academic conference that preceded the forum are beginning to believe that different autoimmune diseases have many of the same causes. At the forum, three medical experts educated the audience and advocated broader, united research efforts.
Autoimmune diseases “are so different that historically they have been treated… based on where the disease occurs,” said Dr. Noel Rose, a Johns Hopkins University professor and researcher.
Unlike oncology — a medical specialty that studies and treats all varieties of cancer — the 80 known autoimmune diseases have “no single group of doctors,” Rose said.
Autoimmune diseases range from the well known to the rare, the lethal to the relatively benign.
Lupus, a potentially fatal disease of the blood vessels and connective tissue, can damage the kidneys, brain, heart, and lungs in the several hundred thousand Americans affected. Rheumatoid Arthritis, which can strike adults of any age, is a common progressive disease in which swollen or inflamed nerves become deformed and inhibit muscle control.
Less common examples are Wegener’s Granulomatosis, which involves inflammation of blood vessels, and Myasthenia Gravis, which weakens muscles by blocking nerve impulses from reaching them.
The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association says that as many as 50 million Americans may have some autoimmune disease. About 75 percent are women, leading some researchers to speculate that estrogen plays a role.
Genes seem to be a major, but not the only, determinant of who contracts an autoimmune disease. For instance, while identical twins have the same genetic code, there is more than a 50 percent chance that when one has an autoimmune disease, the other will not, said Dr. Denise Faustman, a professor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Rose said infection, drugs and environmental pollutants may trigger the “constellation of different genetic traits” that seems to cause autoimmune diseases.
In one lecture, Thomas Greco, a Yale University medical school professor, described recent research into an auto-antibody that tends to run in families and may be integral to autoimmune diseases.
“We’re talking about relatives having a high incidence of these proteins,” Greco said.
The protein in question — the antiphospholipid antibody — is associated with such maladies as premature strokes, miscarriages, lung artery blockages and blindness, Greco said.
What is especially interesting, Greco said, is that the antibody’s presence can lead to different diseases within a family. This may account for researchers’ overlooking a possibly significant common — and perhaps genetic — cause of many autoimmune diseases.
Audience members, who between speeches strolled among booths detailing autoimmune diseases, seemed to gain from the four-hour gathering.
“I learned one little piece of information that I’m going to follow up on,” said Anne May, 69, of Baltimore. “I will take steps to get to the bottom of this.”
Because of the lectures, she planned to explore a possible connection between her undiagnosed vision problems and her multiple autoimmune illnesses. She said she will ask her opthalmalogist to investigate.
Claudia Frederick, an autoimmune sufferer and Baltimore resident volunteering for the Arthritis Foundation, said she may ask her physician to test her for antiphospholipid antibodies, which may be a cause of her blood clotting problems.
Nancy Baughman came away ready to probe her doctors differently in light of the forum’s information.
“I’m going to ask them what’s new on the horizon,” she said. “I’m certainly going to write to my congressman” to call attention to autoimmune diseases. For more information about autoimmune diseases, call the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association at 800-598- 4668. -30-