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Unconventional Wisdom

Rethinking the approach to some autoimmune disorders

East Tennesee Medical News—May 7, 2013

What if the standard treatment approach was the wrong one? In the case of several autoimmune disorders, it’s a theory that is gaining traction bolstered by recent research findings.

Stephen A. Paget, MD, FACP, FACR, MACR, physician-in-chief emeritus at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, has spent his career researching and treating a range of inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. The rheumatologist said the potential exists for a paradigm shift in how clinicians view and treat some disorders including reactive arthritis, Whipple’s disease and persistent Lyme disease.

Paget said the accepted concept has been “that in a genetically predisposed person, with some type of environmental trigger … probably virus or bacteria … they develop disease.” Although the initiation was from a microorganism, he continued, the conventional wisdom has been that the self-perpetuation of symptoms is due to the body’s subsequent response. “What you were left with was an inflammatory problem that was no longer tied to the previous organism,” Paget explained.

A good example would be persistent Lyme disease.

In his 2012 paper, “The Microbiome, Autoimmunity and Arthritis: Cause and Effect: An Historical Perspective,” which was published in Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, Paget noted that for more than 100 years, there has been “tantalizing but often inconclusive evidence” about the role of microorganisms in autoimmune diseases. He wrote, “Current therapy focuses on the pathogenesis rather than the etiology of these disorders. In order to rein in the overactive immune system we believe to be causing the disease, we employ immunosuppressive drugs, an act that would be counterintuitive if infection were the root cause of the problem.”


“It may very well be we have to improve the immune system response instead of suppress it, and that’s the interesting twist,” Paget continued. If the root cause of an autoimmune condition is infection, “You’d want the army active,” he said of augmenting the immune system.

While much more research must be done, Paget said mounting evidence of the important connection between microorganisms and a number of autoimmune disorders provides ‘food for thought’ when it comes to the best course of action for treating these conditions and could ultimately portend a paradigm shift in the delivery of care.

“In some of these, the organism is slow, smoldering … but still there in a low-grade way that is triggering the inflammatory response. We have to be appreciative of the fact that we want to do the best thing for our patients … but what we’re doing (now) may be the worst thing,” he concluded.


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