Kristen Johnston, the 46-year-old comedy star you know from 3rd Rock from the Sun, the TV Land sitcom The Exes, and her scene-stealing moment in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, wasn’t joking when she talked with a People magazine reporter about being diagnosed with lupus myelitis.
After her feeling of general fatigue escalated to the point where she couldn’t hold her head up or walk upstairs, she sought medical help. Lots of medical help. “I went to 17 doctors and nobody could figure out what was going on,” she says.
Dr. Daniel J. Wallace, the rheumatologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles who finally diagnosed Johnston’s condition, explains, “There’s no optimal test to identify [lupus myelitis, a rare subset of the illness]. The blood test that diagnoses it often comes out normal. Most neurologists may only see two of three lupus myelitis cases in a 30-year career.”
Naturally, we sympathize with Kristen Johnston. Moreover, we appreciate that she’s doing a great service by drawing attention to lupus, a debilitating chronic condition that affects 1.5 million people in the United States, 90 percent of whom are women.
Although she didn’t say so specifically in the interview, we have to believe Johnston has experienced more than one “why me” moment since being diagnosed. It’s a question everyone asks, and it’s one medical researchers are still trying to answer. One contributing factor could be connected to estrogen, the primary female sex hormone.
A recent study conducted by researchers from The Ohio State University and the University of Virginia, examined the link between estrogen and the development of autoimmune diseases. The results were published in the March 2014 issue of Clinical Immunology. They indicate that while estrogen has been known to protect against certain infectious diseases it might also help to create an environment in which autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, develop.
“Estrogen appears to be a double-edged sword—on one side, protecting women from disease, on the other potentially causing it,” says Wael Jarjour, MD, whose immunology lab at Ohio State is specializes in studying gender bias in autoimmune disease. Dr. Jarjour admits that the idea of a causal link between estrogen and lupus requires a considerable amount of further study. Still, it raises interesting possibilities, and he adds, “The overwhelming sex bias of autoimmune disease demands that the estrogen connection be studied more deeply.”
Margaret Shupnik, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia who worked on the study, says that examining the way estrogen appears to affect the body’s natural immune response could lead to the development of more targeted treatments for lupus. “There has been only one new lupus treatment introduced in the past 50 years,” she points out. “And our most powerful drugs shut down the immune system, causing difficult-to-manage side effects.”
Everything that raises awareness of autoimmune diseases such as lupus reinforces support for research into their causes and cures. Unlike most of her acting roles, Kristen Johnston’s diagnosis didn’t earn her any laughs, but it certainly deserves a big round of applause.