Sjogren’s Clinic Tackles Little-Understood Disease

Andreea Coca, M.D.

Andreea Coca, M.D.

URMC has launched a weekly clinic dedicated exclusively to area patients suffering from Sjogren’s disease, a frustrating dry eyes and mouth syndrome.

Affecting as many as 4 million people nationwide, Sjogren’s is a chronic autoimmune disorder in which a person’s own white blood cells misfire, ravaging their moisture-producing glands instead of unhealthy germ invaders. Applying the national incidence rate to Rochester, there could be hundreds, perhaps even a couple thousand local residents living with Sjogren’s.

Sjogren’s can wreak serious long-term damage, according to Rheumatologist Andreea Coca, M.D. The disease can rot teeth for lack of saliva’s consistently “washing” them. It also can make it both tiring and uncomfortable to talk or swallow, and without tears to coat eyes in a protective sheath, it can bring about eye ulcers and the resultant scars. As many as 1 in 3 patients’ disease also impacts their central and peripheral nervous systems, in some cases causing vexing numbness, tingling and neuropathies. For the 90 percent of sufferers who are women, the disease may also trigger vaginal discomfort and dryness.

“Sjogren’s can be even more problematic for about 10 percent of sufferers for whom it’s a more systemic disease, endangering important organs like the kidneys, lungs, heart, not to mention frequently causing arthritis,” Coca said. “It also puts those patients at a 44-fold greater risk for lymphoma.”

Historically, Sjogren’s patients have been accommodated in general rheumatology clinics; they’ve also sought advice from primary care doctors or symptom-specific specialists, like neurologists, ophthalmologists and dentists. But now, by pulling together a cohort of these patients in Rochester, Coca says they stand to benefit from more specialized care and coordinated access to the many disciplines that need be involved in caring for these patients.

The research opportunities abound, she added. “To our knowledge, there aren’t any local clinics dedicated to Sjogren’s. And to date, there aren’t that many viable therapies.” Pooling these patients together could help URMC reach the critical mass needed to bring more investigative clinical treatments to Rochester, she said.

Some Sjogren’s research is already under way at URMC. Ignacio Sanz, M.D., chief of Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology, has received grant funding to investigate why the immune system goes awry in this disease. Sanz also serves as director of URMC’s Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, one of only eight such NIH-funded centers nationwide that aim to coordinate innovative clinical trials in multiple autoimmune diseases, including Sjogren’s.

Patients appropriate for the clinic have either an established diagnosis of Sjogren’s, or sicca symptoms, which include dry eyes and dry mouth.

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