Gloved hands injecting liquid into a petri dish
Lupus is a chronic condition in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Symptoms of lupus can vary between people, depending on which tissues are attacked and how severe and prolonged the attack is.
Our research is revealing how lupus develops, with the aim of improving how it is treated.

Our lupus research

Our lupus research program is aimed at better understanding how the immune system causes lupus, to develop new strategies for its treatment.

Our researchers are focused on:

  • Understanding what goes wrong in immune cells to cause symptoms and tissue damage in lupus.
  • Designing and testing new ways to treat lupus.

What is lupus?

Lupus is a serious condition in which the body’s own immune system mistakenly produces molecules, called antibodies, that recognise a person’s own tissue. This ‘autoimmune’ attack can result in damage to a variety of organs.

The most severe form of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which often affects many organs. Usually, the skin and joints are most affected, but damage can also occur to the kidneys, lungs, heart, brain and blood vessels.

Lupus can be difficult to diagnose. Many of its symptoms can be confused with other conditions. Symptoms can also vary between people, depending on which tissues the disease-causing antibodies attack.

In the long term, and also as a result of treatment, people with lupus are at an increased risk of:

  • Infection
  • Cancer
  • Bone thinning
  • Complications associated with pregnancy

In Australia, it is estimated that at least 20,000 people have lupus. Lupus places a substantial economic burden on our community. People with lupus have long-term healthcare needs and often have reduced quality of life.

What causes lupus?

It is not known what triggers the misdirected immune response that causes lupus. Immune cells called B cells normally produce antibodies that protect the body against infection. There are many safeguards to prevent the production of harmful antibodies that target body tissues rather than foreign organisms. In lupus these safeguards seem to be circumvented. Find out how the immune system is normally controlled. 

Immunology research has provided many clues to how changes in the immune system contribute to lupus. For example, defects in the machinery that controls cell death can lead to 'autoimmune' B cells that can cause lupus.

The immune system also contains cells that stifle unwanted immune responses. If these cells are not functioning properly, autoimmune attacks on body tissues can occur.

Risk factors for developing lupus

The triggers for lupus are poorly understood. Some factors that are associated with developing lupus are:

  • Being female: 90 per cent of Australians with lupus are women.
  • Early adulthood: most cases of lupus are detected in people aged between 15 and 45.
  • Genetic susceptibility: lupus is more prevalent in some families and some racial groups. Lupus is more prevalent and more severe in Aboriginal Australians than in the wider Australian population.
  • Sunlight exposure can be a trigger in susceptible people.

How is lupus treated?

There is no cure for lupus, but treatment can reduce symptoms and help prevent long-term organ damage.

Treatments are aimed at dampening the immune response, and reducing inflammation. Some of the medicines prescribed to treat lupus are:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs: reduce tissue inflammation in the short term.
  • Certain antimalarial drugs: work gradually to reduce some of the symptoms of lupus.
  • Immune suppressing drugs and biologic drugs: powerful drugs that dampen the immune system and are used for more severe cases of lupus.

The current treatment options for lupus are limited. They all come with a risk of potentially serious side-effects, such as susceptibility to infection. There is a need for more effective treatments for lupus, and a better understanding of how the disease develops.

Further information for people living with lupus can be found at:


Professor Ian Wicks

Ian Wicks
Joint Division Head, Laboratory Head
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Antibodies erupting from the surface of an immune cell

Professor David Tarlinton has received an award from the Lupus Research Institute to investigate the causes of lupus and develop new approaches to its treatment

Researchers with a computer

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