updated 10/31/2003 6:38:02 PM ET 2003-10-31T23:38:02

Researchers have found blood antibodies that can herald the symptoms of lupus years in advance, potentially helping point the way toward future treatments for the life-threatening immune disease.

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“If we are able to identify a pathogen that triggers this process, then we could set to work on developing new strategies to stop that pathogen,” said Dr. John Harley, the senior researcher at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and University of Oklahoma.

The study team, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, reported its findings Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers identified 130 lupus patients — either soldiers or veterans — who had left blood samples in a military repository. They were matched with similar soldiers who did not develop lupus.

Before their diagnosis, 88 percent in the lupus group showed at least one autoantibody, an immune system protein that mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissue during the course of lupus. They appeared up to nine years before the patients came down with the disease, suggesting that the process begins insidiously before symptoms become apparent.

About 4 percent of subjects without lupus showed the autoantibodies.

Dr. Robert Shmerling, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, cautioned in an accompanying commentary that such blood testing would prove of limited value in screening people for future cases of lupus. He said such autoantibodies, without visible symptoms of lupus, could point too often to other diseases or mean nothing at all.

An estimated 1.4 million Americans, mostly women, have lupus, a chronic disease that turns the body’s immune defense system against its own healthy tissues. Many people afflicted also develop severe arthritis.

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