Support for research/cure of autoimmune hepatitis ~See Extended Info.~
Autoimmune hepatitis can be one of the most devastating diseases in the world. Autoimmune hepatitis is a disease in which the body's immune system attacks liver cells. This causes the liver to become inflamed (hepatitis). Researchers think a genetic factor may predispose some people to autoimmune diseases. About 70 percent of those with autoimmune hepatitis are women, most between the ages of 15 and 40. The disease is usually quite serious and, if not treated, gets worse over time. It's usually chronic, meaning it can last for years, and can lead to cirrhosis (scarring and hardening) of the liver and eventually liver failure. One job of the immune system is to protect the body from viruses, bacteria, and other living organisms. Usually, the immune system does not react against the body's own cells. However, sometimes it mistakenly attacks the cells it is supposed to protect. This response is called autoimmunity. Researchers speculate that certain bacteria, viruses, toxins, and drugs trigger an autoimmune response in people who are genetically susceptible to developing an autoimmune disorder.
How is autoimmune hepatitis treated?
Treatment works best when autoimmune hepatitis is diagnosed early. With proper treatment, autoimmune hepatitis can usually be controlled. In fact, studies show that sustained response to treatment stops the disease from getting worse and may reverse some of the damage.
The primary treatment is medicine to suppress, or slow down, an overactive immune system.
Both types of autoimmune hepatitis are treated with daily doses of a corticosteroid called prednisone.
Treatment may begin with a high dose of 30 to 60 mg per day and be lowered to 10 to 20 mg per day as the disease is controlled. The goal is to find the lowest possible dose that will control the disease.
Another medicine, azathioprine (Imuran) is also used to treat autoimmune hepatitis. Like prednisone, azathioprine suppresses the immune system, but in a different way. Treatment may begin with both azathioprine and prednisone, or azathioprine may be added later, once the disease is under control. The use of azathioprine allows for a lower dose of prednisone, which in turn reduces predisone’s side effects.
In about seven out of 10 people, the disease goes into remission within 3 years of starting treatment. Remission occurs when symptoms disappear and lab tests show improvement in liver function. Some people can eventually stop treatment, although many will see the disease return. People who stop treatment must carefully monitor their condition and promptly report any new symptoms to their doctor. Treatment with low doses of prednisone or azathioprine may be necessary on and off for years, if not for life.
Both prednisone and azathioprine have side effects. Because high doses of prednisone are often needed to control autoimmune hepatitis, managing side effects is very important. However, most side effects appear only after a long period of time.
Some possible side effects of prednisone are:
* weight gain
* anxiety and confusion
* thinning of the bones, a condition called osteoporosis
* thinning of the hair and skin
* high blood pressure
Azathioprine can lower white blood cell counts and sometimes causes nausea and poor appetite. Rare side effects are allergic reaction, liver damage, and pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas gland with severe stomach pain.
Hope Through Research
Scientists are studying various aspects of autoimmune hepatitis to find out who gets it and why and to discover better ways to treat it. Basic research on the immune system will expand knowledge of autoimmune diseases in general. Epidemiologic research will help doctors understand what triggers autoimmune hepatitis in some people. Research on different steroids, alternatives to steroids, and other immunosuppressants will eventually lead to more effective treatments.