First Bari Martz's fingers turned blue. Then she started gasping for breath, and her joints stiffened so that she couldn't even open her hands. Doctors diagnosed scleroderma, part of an insidious family of diseases where the immune system attacks a patient's own body, sometimes enough to kill. Worsening rapidly, the Florida woman took a gamble: Doctors stored stem cells from her blood and then wiped out her faulty immune system. Her reinfused stem cells seem to have let a healthy new immune system take root, stopping more damage and, nearly two years later, letting her lungs and joints heal enough for better function.
Studies here and in Europe are aiming to reset immunity for patients with severe scleroderma - work that, if successful, could cast new light on numerous autoimmune diseases, from lupus to multiple sclerosis. While early reports are promising, it remains experimental, recruitment is slow and a fundamental issue is unsettled: Do doctors need to take the radical step of killing all the bad immune cells, or just suppress their function?