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When Our Own Bodies Attack – The Mystery of Autoimmune Diseases
Jude Smith is one of the younger veterans of a battle more Americans are waging against their immune systems.
By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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When the immune system attacks the body, the result can be multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, or a dozen other diseases. These diseases are on the rise, and they even strike children. At three years old, Jude Smith is already a veteran.
It started with strange bruises on his skin. Doctors at Mayo Clinic diagnosed a rare autoimmune disease called ITP, immune thrombocytopenic purpura.
“We don’t know exactly what causes ITP,” says Behzad Bidadi, MD, an expert in pediatric blood diseases at Mayo Clinic. “We believe that the immune system in the body mistakes the platelets for being foreign and attacks them.”
That is the hallmark of an autoimmune disease. The immune system, which is supposed to attack invaders, turns instead on the body’s own tissues. In MS, it attacks the nerves. In rheumatoid arthritis, it attacks the joints. In this case, the immune system attacks blood platelets that allow clotting.
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“This increases their risk for bleeding because the job of the platelets is to stop bleeding,” says Dr. Bidadi. That means a bump on the head could lead to a fatal hemorrhage in the brain.
Jude was given drugs to suppress his overactive immune system. These work in most children with ITP, but he would not stay in remission.
He was sent on a trip meant for children who aren’t expected to grow up. “It was a very emotional experience,” says his father Sam. “His wish was to go to Disney World to meet Lightning McQueen…and he just ran right up to Lightning McQueen and gave him a big kiss.”
When he got back from Disney World, he was started on a regimen that stimulates the bone marrow to produce more platelets. It’s been tested in adults, but it’s still experimental in children.
So far it’s working. Jude is not cured, but his parents can allow him to run around again without worrying a simple fall could be fatal.
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