Selena Gomez was all smiles on the set of her new film project, hours after revealing she’d spent much of the summer recovering from a kidney transplant. She broke the news today in a touching Instagram post, which accompanied a photo of the singer and actress clasping hands with her donor, actress pal Francia Raisa, as they lay in adjacent hospital beds.
As Gomez explained in her caption, the procedure was required because of organ damage caused by lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder with which she was diagnosed in 2013. The signs and symptoms of lupus vary widely, but roughly half of patients suffer from lupus nephritis whereby the kidney fails to filter out waste—resulting in scarring and damage to the organ. Researchers believe the disease has a hereditary link, but they have not yet concluded why some people with the genetic predisposition develop lupus while others don’t. It’s a good question, and one that will only be solved by rigorous scientific and medical study.
In her Instagram post, Gomez urged fans to visit the Alliance for Lupus Research online to learn more about the disease. The Alliance funds research projects that present new avenues of looking at lupus with animal models and human patients, echoing the NIH’s inclusion of these study methods in “The Future Directions of Lupus Research,” a document that outlines five major interest areas of study and was created with input from experts in the research community.
It’s no coincidence that lupus studies in areas yet untouched by scientific inquiry hinge on what researchers can expect to learn from animal models. Much of what is now known about lupus, and many of the most successful treatment options—including lifesaving kidney transplants, pain relievers, and the medications most widely prescribed to lupus patients—were made possible by animal research.
The story behind the development of mycophenolate mofetil (MMF), which progressed from lab dish studies to mice, rats, dogs, and monkeys before it was approved as an immunosuppressant medication to treat people living with lupus, was chronicled by Dr. Hans Sollinger, Department of Surgery, UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. In his aptly-titled paper, “From mice to man: the preclinical history of mycophenolate mofetil,” Dr. Sollinger explains how the animal models demonstrated the success of MMF in prolonging organ survival and preventing organ rejection, which paved the way for its use to treat lupus patients.
In fact, this class of drugs helped to make organ transplantation possible, along with advancements in the surgical method—which is another story of animal experiments. In the case of kidney transplants, the first surgeries were conducted in the early 20th century using only animal models. The transplantation of a rabbit kidney in a human patient several years later yielded crucial knowledge that eventually paved the way for the first human-to-human procedure in 1933. While animal-to-human surgeries are generally unsuccessful, last month the New York Times reported new research that suggests the implantation of organs from gene-altered pigs into human patients might one day be possible.
Thankfully for patients everywhere, including Gomez, science and medicine have progressed such that a record number of organ transplants, more than 30,000, were performed in the United States in 2015. And one day they may have another reason to be thankful: The National Kidney Foundation cites promising animal research—research involving the very same recombinant DNA technology that could re-open the possibility of successful animal-to-human procedures—that could allow scientists to precisely identify “the location of defects in the genetic material of cells that cause certain hereditary disorders,” making realistic “the possibility of replacing genetic material to correct these defects before they cause disease.” These developments could, collectively, answer the perennial question of “why” that has plagued researchers studying lupus. And more importantly, it could help prevent the five million people worldwide who suffer from the disease from passing it to their children.