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Common antibiotic knocks out rare skin disease

Minocycline effectively cured four patients of scleroderma  

In this story:

May 8, 1998
Web posted at: 5:52 p.m. EDT (2152 GMT)
Web posted at:

BOSTON (CNN) -- Researchers say a common antibiotic that has been in use for more than 20 years has proven effective against a potentially fatal skin disease from which thousands of Americans suffer.

People in the early stages of scleroderma can get total relief from the debilitating autoimmune disease by taking the antibiotic minocycline twice a day, according to the findings of a year-long pilot study.

"The results are highly significant," said study leader Dr. David Trentham, a rheumatologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Minocycline is ordinarily used to treat acne, but Trentham gave it to six patients with scleroderma and it effectively cured four of them.

"We thought the drug would lead to improvement, but to have total clearing of the skin was quite a surprise," he said.

Scleroderma affects about 150,000 Americans, and may be familiar to those who have seen the TV movie "For Hope."

Scleroderma had been untreatable

The disease causes degeneration of the connective tissue of the skin, lungs and internal organs, especially the esophagus, digestive tract and kidneys.

Patients with scleroderma experience a stiffening and thickening of the skin, which makes it difficult to move certain parts of the body. In some cases, there is difficulty swallowing and breathing, and the person dies.

Almost all of Dale's symptoms are gone after taking minocycline for a year  

"Patients may live three to five to 10 years," Trentham said, "but they increasingly become more and more disabled. It becomes more difficult to move hands; limbs become rigid."

Trentham thought minocycline might work with scleroderma because it had been found to help those with rheumatoid arthritis. Both are autoimmune diseases, meaning the body's immune system attacks its own tissue.

He had no idea, however, that it would work as well as it did.

"I must admit we were pleasantly surprised," he said. "Heretofore, scleroderma has never been treatable in any real form or fashion."

Cynthia Dale, one of Trentham's patients, said she had no energy and was in great pain before she began taking minocyline.

"Brushing my teeth became a chore, because I wasn't able to open my mouth wide enough, and I couldn't grip the toothbrush," she said. "It was too small to grip."

Dale added, "I couldn't braid my little girl's hair. Every morning she wanted me to do it, and I couldn't." (icon 214K/20 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

'You feel like you're a 12-year-old'

After taking minocycline for a year, almost all of her symptoms are gone.

"You feel like you're a 12-year-old and you can do anything," she said. "You can climb Mt. Everest, and you have energy and you're happy and you're past it."

Trentham warns that his study was small and only worked on patients whose disease was in the early stages. But he said it offers hope to people who once had very little.

Indeed, the researchers are so encouraged that they say they will also try it on those who suffer from other autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and lupus.

Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.


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