Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): Causes, Signs & Treatments

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  • 0:43 What Is Systemic Lupus…
  • 1:47 Why Does Systemic…
  • 3:28 An Immune System Gone Wild
  • 5:59 Clinical Signs,…
  • 6:47 Treatment of Systemic…
  • 7:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will discuss the complex pathophysiology behind systemic lupus erythematosus. You will learn why it occurs, what may trigger it, and how it can be properly diagnosed, treated, and managed.

Vengeance Upon The Body

I spent part of my childhood romping in the spinneys engulfing part of my family summer home. But one day, as a young lad, I was attacked by a hornet that left a welt on me as large as my kneecap! I would never forget that moment or my newfound disdain of hornets not associated with Charlotte. If I ever found a hornet's nest, I promised myself I, small as I may be, will crush it! And like little angry old me, sometimes the immune system promises to do the same exact thing to our own body, resulting in serious consequences we'll get to in a just a little bit.

What Is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

The disease I want to describe to you that involves an immune system gone wild is called systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE for short. This is an incurable autoimmune condition that can affect any part of the body, including the skin, heart, lungs, kidneys, and nervous system.

It's got the word 'systemic' in the name because that word implies a body-wide problem as opposed to one affecting only a local area. 'Lupus' is the Latin name for 'wolf,' and some people claim that the facial rash some people have in this disease causes them to mimic the facial coloration patterns some wolves have. Whether that's actually where the term came from is not all that relevant, but the final word 'erythematosus' is important to know, as its Greek prefix 'erythro' references the 'red' rash some people with SLE have. SLE is more common in women, can affect a person of any age, and is more likely to occur in people of African descent.

Why Does Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Occur?

With that out of the way, we can now turn our attention to what I consider to be the most exciting part of this lesson, where we find out about one theory as to why this problem occurs and how the environment plays a role. The exact underlying cause of what causes SLE is not known, but changes to many different genes are a big part of the problem. These genes encode for many important things in our body that end up going wrong in this disease process.

Just think about a computer's code. If a computer code is programmed incorrectly or changed improperly, it will cause the computer to malfunction, just like genes that code for the immune system may cause it to malfunction if improperly coded for.

Under normal conditions, your body's immune system, composed of white blood cells, such as T-cells, and proteins, such as antibodies and complements, is there to help fight off infectious agents of disease. These components trigger or use the inflammatory process to help fight off disease. Inflammation is what causes all the redness, swelling, and pain associated with everything from hornet stings to cuts to diseases. Inflammation is good in the short-term fight against disease, but dangerous and harmful to our body in the long run, regardless of the cause.

Another way by which our body protects itself is by having its own cells commit suicide through a process known as apoptosis. This is an orderly and clean process that results in a cell shriveling up and being cleared away by the body from the area where it died as a result of some sort of damage.

An Immune System Gone Wild

And here is where the trouble in people with SLE begins. People with SLE have an apoptotic process that goes a bit haywire. Everything from sun exposure to infection to drugs abnormally increases an abnormal process of apoptosis to occur.

The cells that commit suicide not only increase in amount, but are also not readily cleared away by your body's garbage collection cells. This causes innards of the un-cleared cells, namely things like DNA and proteins, to be released - something that shouldn't occur in a normal apoptotic process.

As the dying cells do this, an equally aberrant immune response is triggered. The content of the dying cell that is expelled into the outside world is identified, erroneously, as being equivalent to that of a dangerous bacterium. Antibodies are thereby produced against and latch onto these proteins to form antibody-protein complexes. These antibodies, coupled with an over-reactive subsets of things like T-cells, also trigger inflammation or begin to attack our own body's cells, tissues, and organs that harbor these proteins.

Furthermore, the antibody-protein complexes that form as a result of what I just mentioned, circulate around the body and lodge themselves in other places, such as the basement membrane of the skin (which helps to support the skin layers) or the glomeruli of the kidneys (which help to filter blood), triggering serious inflammation in those organs as well. Meaning, the trouble may only begin in one area, but it will eventually spread to other parts of the body.

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