updated 11/4/2003 6:33:48 PM ET 2003-11-04T23:33:48

A drug used to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients works as well as chemotherapy for treating kidney failure from lupus but with fewer side effects, a study shows.

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Side effects from chemotherapy, including hair loss, anemia, loss of appetite and nausea, sometimes prevent some patients from completing their treatment.

“Having an alternative that provides fewer side effects is a very important thing for patients,” said Sandra C. Raymond, president and chief executive officer of the Lupus Foundation of America Inc. She noted there haven’t been any new drugs for lupus in 30 years.

The research compared the effectiveness of oral doses of CellCept, which suppresses the immune system, with chemotherapy, the standard treatment for patients with lupus nephritis, a serious complication of lupus.

“Our study shows tremendous promise,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Ellen Ginzler of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York. “It can be an alternative standard of care.”

The research was to be released Saturday at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual meeting in Orlando.

Lupus is an inflammatory disease that affects between 500,000 and 1.5 million people in the United States, primarily women between ages 18 and 45. About half of lupus patients get lupus nephritis, which in its most serious form can cause kidney failure.

The 130 study participants received either CellCept or intravenous doses of cyclophosphamide.

In the CellCept group, there were 14 complete and 21 partial remissions compared to four complete and 14 partial remissions in the chemotherapy group.

Fifty-two of the 66 patients on CellCept completed the six months of treatment, while only 38 of the 64 patients on chemotherapy finished their treatment.

Severe infections also were less common in the patients taking CellCept, according to the research sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration.

Martha Emerson, a 52-year-old homemaker in suburban Orlando, began taking CellCept four months ago after chemotherapy and other treatments failed. The only side effects she has had are mouth sores and difficulty getting to sleep.

“It’s not a miracle drug, but it’s a very big help,” she said.

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