Drug shows promise for restoring immune system

March 2, 2011 8:01:30 PM PST
When people are young and healthy, their immune systems are able to fight off many of the illnesses that come along. But what if a pill could turn back the clock on your immune system and give it the strength it had at its peak? Researchers at UCSF believe they may be on the trail of an immune boosting drug.

Gloria Houtenbrink keeps her body sharp with exercise while Edie Sadewitz stays engaged by painting. But now, both women may soon have another way to ward off the effects of aging by literally turning back the clock on their immune systems with the help of a pill.

"My immune system is 90, so it's willing to subtract a few years if possible," Sadewitz said.

UCSF immunologist Edward Goetzl has zeroed in on a drug called Revlimid. After taking blood samples from elderly volunteers, Dr. Goetzl's team infected them and then introduced the drug. He says, at a low dosage, it stimulated the production of proteins which help the immune system attack viruses and bacteria.

"We found also that under stress of infection that over weeks that the immune system could resuscitate itself," Goetzl said.

The results were so promising that Goetzl's team is now set begin clinical trials with patients.

Dr. Janice Schwartz is the director of research for the Jewish Home of San Francisco, which has volunteers participating in the study.

"I think all of us want to live long time, but want to live healthy life and days spent sick are not good days," Schwartz said.

Patients will be given a single dose every day.

In an early phase of the trial, researchers plan to study their immune systems response to typical challenges, such as a seasonal flu shot.

"So we'll give them the medicine for a couple of weeks before and after the flu shot and we'd expect them to have a better response, better t-cells response, a system making more antibodies. and in general get their money's worth from a flu shot," Goetzl said.

If successful, he says the drug could eventually have applications as an immune system booster, to counteract the decline from age.

Houtenbrink and Sadewitz, both age 90, are hoping their participation may leave a legacy for science.

"I have three grandchildren it might help," Houtenbrink said.

While the original trial was done in blood only, the drug itself has been used in cancer treatment. Since the doses for this application are far lower, Goetzel believes there are limited chances of side effects.

Written and produced by Tim Didion