New Study Shows Benlysta Alters B Cells in People with Lupus

August 21, 2019

Newly published research found that belimumab (Benlysta®) effectively reduced the number of B cells, a type of white blood cell that makes antibodies.  According to the prescribing information, belimumab is “a B-lymphocyte stimulator (BLyS)-specific inhibitor indicated for the treatment of patients aged 5 years and older with active, autoantibody positive, systemic lupus erythematosus who are receiving standard therapy.”

It is thought that belimumab works by targeting BLyS, also known by scientists as B-cell activating factor (BAFF), a protein that helps B cells survive and produce more antibodies. In this study, scientists compared blood cells from healthy people versus those with lupus taking belimumab or standard-of-care. Patients treated with belimumab showed lower levels of a key subset of B cells.

Earlier research by two scientists funded by one of the Lupus Research Alliance’s heritage organizations – the Alliance for Lupus Research — helped set the stage for the development of belimumab. It was already known that B cells malfunction in lupus by producing antibodies that attack patients’ own DNA. In the late 1990s, our funded researchers discovered that the protein BLyS/BAFF also stimulates B cells and helps them survive. With his grant, Dr. William Stohl of University of Southern California tracked patients with lupus for more than a year and found that half of them had increased levels of BLyS/BAFF at least part of the time, suggesting that the protein has a role in lupus.

Dr. Robert Carter, now Acting Director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) also received our Target Identification in Lupus grant in 2000 and helped further clarify the effects of blocking BLyS/BAFF. Using mouse models of lupus, he and colleagues demonstrated that blocking BLyS/BAFF decreased the levels of antibodies that targeted the animals’ own cells and reduced some of their lupus symptoms.