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Drug May Help Fight Scleroderma

March 7, 1998

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ An experimental drug for scleroderma appears to reverse the crippling, disfiguring tissue disease that afflicts about 400,000 Americans and that can kill quickly in severe cases.

Relaxin, made by Connectics Corp., has promise for controlling little-understood scleroderma and may help researchers battle other autoimmune diseases, principal investigator Dr. James R. Seibold said Friday.

``I think the way the scientific community looks at it is, if we make a breakthrough in scleroderma, it will open the doors in many other diseases,″ such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, said Seibold.

Seibold is director of the Scleroderma Research Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry at New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

The school is one of 13 U.S. sites where 120 patients have received Relaxin, also called ConXn, according to John L. Higgins, chief financial officer at Connectics, a biotechnology company based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Scleroderma primarily strikes women and causes certain cells to produce excess collagen, making scar tissue build up, thickening and hardening the skin. That makes fingers clumsy and joints so tight and sore that patients increasingly have trouble feeding, bathing and dressing themselves.

In about 70,000 Americans it spreads through the body, hardening vital organs and often killing within five years.

Diane Drolet, 48, who was diagnosed with scleroderma in 1991, said that Relaxin has ``helped quite a bit,″ unlike previous drugs.

``It’s definitely changed my life for the better,″ she said.

While existing medications ease pain and control complications of scleroderma, Relaxin is the only drug being developed to reverse the disease, according to Karl Kastrof, executive director of the Scleroderma Foundation.

In the most recent research phase, 70 percent of patients getting a low dose saw a significant decrease in skin scarring and increase in ability to function _ as did about half as many patients getting a dummy pill.

Independent researchers said the drug, a genetically engineered version of a hormone prevalent in pregnant women, shows promise but further research is needed.

``This drug has a very good safety profile. It’s an exciting option when you look at some of the toxic drugs that we’ve been using,″ said Dr. Fredrick Wigley, co-director of the scleroderma center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Higgins said Connectics plans to start the final research phase this summer and seek approval in 2000 from the Food and Drug Administration.

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For further information, contact the Scleroderma Foundation at www.scleroderma.com or 1-800-722-HOPE, or the medical school scleroderma program at 732-235-7520.

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