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What Is Belimumab?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated May 17, 2024
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Belimumab is a medication specifically for treating the condition systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE.) The drug is technically an antibody. It acts on certain molecules of the immune system and helps reduce the inflammation that causes SLE symptoms.

In 1996, a pharmaceutical company called Human Genome Sciences (HGS) identified a molecule that encouraged the growth of B cells in the immune system. This was a cell called B-lymphocyte stimulator (BLyS) and it occurred naturally in the human body. The company then joined forces with another scientific research group, Cambridge Antibody Technology, and developed an antibody, belimumab, that could attach to BLyS and block its biological action.

This antibody binds specifically to BLyS and stops it from boosting the growth of B cells, calming the immune system. This treatment often can benefit people who suffer from SLE. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first approved belimumab for use against SLE in 2011.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means that the affected person's own immune system is at the root of the problem, and is sometimes unable to effectively combat viruses and other illnesses. Conversely, the patient's immune system also produces inflammation to fight disease when none is necessary. As well as skin irritation, especially on the face, and itchy eyes, the condition can also cause psychological problems like depression. A person with SLE may also have extreme joint pain as well as inflammation of the protective layers of internal organs, or suffer from kidney damage.

For a patient, a typical treatment regimen of belimumab requires him or her to sit for about one hour while the medicine infuses into a vein through a needle. A doctor may repeat the infusion every fortnight or about once every month. According to HGS, the drug is not suitable for children.

Patients whose lupus has affected the kidneys or the central nervous system may not be suitable candidates for the treatment. Doctors may also recommend that a patient undergoing other types of medical treatment avoid taking belimumab at the same time. Pregnant and breastfeeding women may pass the drug to their baby, and as a precaution, a doctor should only prescribe the medication if the mother's, or baby's, health is at risk.

Common side effects to belimumab include gastrointestinal and respiratory problems. Diarrhea, fever and nausea are possible. Irritation to the throat, trouble sleeping and bronchitis may also occur. Patients are also at risk of developing severe infections, or serious allergic reaction to the drug that can cause trouble breathing and facial swelling. The method of delivery may also present issues, such as skin rashes around the injection site.

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