Translating into “hard skin,” scleroderma is a connective- tissue disorder where a person’s immune system is malfunctioning. It usually starts with a couple patches of dry skin on the hands or face. Then these patches slowly harden and thicken, and spread elsewhere. The progressive disease can turn your hands purple and make them so hard it’s as if they’ve petrified (like wood). Bad cases can become life threatening, as the condition can spread to the lungs, kidneys, or even the heart.
About 300,000 Americans have scleroderma, one-third of whom have the dangerous type that can reach the internal organs. There isn’t a cure and it remains uncommon. But hopeful days are ahead for people who suffer from this very problematic arthritic condition. Until the mid-1990s, a diagnosis of the worst kind of scleroderma often meant death, especially if a person had pulmonary hypertension as well. Since then, medical science has learned more about the condition, and now, in the past year or so, many new advances have occurred when it comes to research.
And so we are getting closer to properly dealing with a disease that has handcuffed patients and doctors alike for decades. Now, physicians can have many different treatment methods for scleroderma patients. In a new study, for instance, the drug “cyclophosphamide” helped slow down the thickening of the skin and damage to the lungs in a severe type of the condition. Plus, more treatments are around the corner.
Stem cell transplants can regenerate parts of the skin and help with the immune system. New drugs can control joint pain and depression, which are both difficult symptoms. Extraordinary ideas are leading the way. Some research suggests that an effective treatment is chemotherapy or body irradiation, followed by removing stem cells from a patient’s bloodstream and then injecting them back into the body. They believe this measure can “reset” the immune system, thus in effect treating the disease at its very core.
There are lots of large studies going on now, which is a sure sign that scientists are hot on scleroderma’s mysterious trail. Just the act of studying it helps them understand autoimmune diseases more fully and of how white blood cells can end up attacking the body’s own tissues. There are many other diseases that can benefit from this research, including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Grave’s disease, and lupus.
Researchers now have a better idea of the genetics behind scleroderma — and the drugs that treat the previously fatal pulmonary hypertension associated with it, which are now widely available. In the next year, there may be five new drugs that act in different ways toward achieving treatment. The encouraging news doesn’t stop there, as newer drugs are combating scleroderma of the intestines, the progression of lung disease, and the kidney damage that can occur as a result of having the condition.
With so much negative news in the health world, it’s always heartening to look at where hope lies and where advances in medicine are being made.