For the first time in more than 50 years a new drug has been approved for the treatment of lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect various parts of the body, especially the skin, joints, blood and kidneys. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Benlysta (belimumab) on March 9, 2011, making it the first medication approved for lupus in the U.S. since 1955.
Millions of people worldwide have lupus, including at least 1.5 million Americans, according to the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA). Lupus strikes mostly women of childbearing age (15-44) but men, children and teenagers develop lupus, too. While people of all races and ethnic groups can develop lupus, women of color are two to three times more likely to develop the condition.
LFA President and Chief Executive Officer Sandra C. Raymond said, “This is a historic day for the millions of people with lupus and their families around the world who have waited more than 52 years for a treatment breakthrough for lupus.” She called the action “a significant first step toward reaching our goal of developing an arsenal of new, safe, effective and tolerable treatments” and “the beginning of a new era of improved diagnosis, prevention and treatment for the disease.”
Patient Stephanie Kennedy described her reaction to the announcement on a page developed by LFA for patient responses. “We suffer in silence with a feeling of isolation and desperation. The approval of Benlysta is, in a word, hope. It embodies hope where there just was none. With increased awareness and continued strides forward, our voices will continue to be heard and lupus survivors can have something they have been denied....their lives.”
Why has it taken so long to develop a new treatment for lupus? According to LFA, the complexity of the disease makes finding effective new therapies challenging. Lupus can affect multiple organ systems and symptoms can range in severity from one day to the next. Also, lupus affects each person differently, with varying responses to treatment.
While the announcement was welcome news, there are still many drawbacks.