Stem Cells and Lupus Research

The LFA believes expanding stem cell research will accelerate the pace of discovery on the potential therapeutic benefits of stem cells and help basic and clinical researchers learn how stem cells can be used to develop life-saving treatments.

About Stem Cells

Stem cells possess the potential to develop into many different types of cells in the body. They serve as a repair system for the body. Mesenchymal stem cells are found in mature tissues that have already developed. The body uses these cells to replace other cells that die off throughout the normal course of life. As they are not from fetal tissue, these stem cells do not have the same ethical concerns or restrictions that embryonic stem cells do. Current research in lupus focuses on mesenchymal stem cells.

About Mesenchymal Stem Cells

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) are derived from bone marrow, umbilical cords or other tissues and are anti-inflammatory. These anti-inflammatory cells have unique properties that make them attractive as therapy for autoimmune diseases. Unlike with other stem cells, MSCs lack the properties that enable the immune system to detect them as being foreign. Therefore:

  • Donors and recipients do not have to match for treatment to be successful, reducing the risk of rejection.
  • Recipients do not need to ablate (remove) their cells with chemotherapy, reducing their risk of infection.

MSCs have been studied in inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma. In these studies, MSC treatment has been found to be effective and only minimal side effects reported.

Mesenchymal Stem Cells in Lupus

Pioneering researchers from China have studied MSC treatment in over 200 people with lupus who had been unresponsive to standard lupus therapies. Preliminary results show that:

  • As many as 75% (three out of every four) study participants benefited from treatment, a much higher response rate than current treatments for lupus.
  • Disease activity in the participants was greatly reduced for as long as 24 months after treatment.
  • Adverse reactions were rare, and there were no severe reactions to treatment.

While the findings are groundbreaking, there was no control group in these early studies. This means that every participant received the stem cell treatment plus standard lupus therapies. A controlled trial is necessary to ensure that individuals who receive the MSC therapy plus standard lupus therapies do indeed respond better than closely matched participants who only receive standard therapy.

Groundbreaking research: A new stem cell study that could provide a new and potentially transformative treatment for lupus.

This first-of-its-kind phase II clinical trial of mesenchymal stem cells for the treatment of moderate to severe lupus could help lower medication dosage, diminish the long-term effects of lupus, stop damage to vital organs, and save lives. The trial is led by Drs. Gary Gilkeson and Diane Kamen from the Medical University of South Carolina and will be conducted at six research institutions around the country.

Stem cell therapy holds promise as a safe and effective alternative for people with lupus who do not benefit from the current treatments available. Mesenchymal stem cell research has provided hope to people with formerly incurable and devastating conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, heart diseases, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes and osteoarthritis, as well as 80 other diseases.

Previous research using this type of therapy for lupus and other diseases reported minimal side effects. Like every potential new therapy, this treatment must be tested. We remain hopeful this procedure will prove successful and be included in the arsenal of treatments for lupus.

Only one drug is available that was developed specifically to treat lupus. It took more than 50 years for a new drug to be approved for lupus and it does not work for everyone. We need treatments for lupus, and this study provides hope for the future.

We are rallying support for this promising research so it will get the attention and research funding it deserves from public and private sources.

Previous research on mesenchymal stem cells has been promising—but more testing is needed. That’s why we need your support. We are asking donors to consider supporting this effort with a special contribution. Our goal is to raise $500,000. The funding will enable researchers to treat initial participants. Ultimately, the study will be expanded through potential funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other sources.

If you'd like to support this research, consider making a dedicated gift.

To learn more about this study and determine if you are eligible to participate, visit the MSCs in SLE Trial page on

The LFA thus far has awarded 11 grants to advance basic and clinical adult stem cell research as a treatment for lupus. Learn more about all the investigators we have funded for stem cell research.