One of the more common autoimmune diseases, Sjögren’s syndrome affects as many as 0.5 to 2 percent of Americans. Several medications currently exist to address its symptoms, and there are self-care strategies to make you feel better in the short term, but researchers are eager to find new, more effective treatments. Research in Sjögren’s syndrome aims to pinpoint its possible causes, as well as ways to cure the troubling, drying syndrome that affects mucous membrane tissue, especially the eyes, mouth, skin and vagina.

Drug Approaches in Development

The most fertile ground for research and development of new drug treatments for Sjögren’s syndrome seems to be Asia. Several treatments are being studied there, some showing promising results to treat dry eye and dry mouth associated with the disease:

Mizoribine (Bredinin), an immunosuppressant drug, one designed to quiet an overactive immune system, is available only in Japan and China at this time. One Japanese study published in the English medical journal Rheumatology showed positive results in improving malfunctioning salivary glands in some Sjögren’s patients, but was less effective in those subjects with a condition called intralobular fibrosis – an excessive growth of connective tissue on the lobes of organs.

Mycophenolate sodium (Myfortic), an immunosuppressant drug already used as a treatment to prevent organ rejection in transplant recipients, is being studied in a number of autoimmune, arthritis-related diseases, including Sjögren’s syndrome. One German trial showed the drug helped a small group of Sjögren’s patients, improving their dry eye symptoms and reducing their need for eye drops. In addition, at the end of the trial, their blood showed reduced levels of rheumatoid factor and other agents that signal inflammation.

Nizatidine (Tazac, Axid), an oral H2 blocker drug used commonly to treat excess stomach acid, is also being studied in Sjögren’s syndrome as a way to treat xerostomia, or oral dryness. A Japanese study compared nizatidine to famotidine (Pepcid) to determine if the drugs would relieve dry mouth. Nizatidine improved dry mouth, although famotidine did not. The study also showed that those who took nizatidine had mild improvement in related symptoms: the ability to chew, swallow and taste food.

Rebamipide (Mucosta), a mucosal protective agent, is currently in Phase II trials in the U.S. Approved in Japan, it is taken as a pill and is being studied for treating dry eye and mouth. Japanese researchers studied rebamipide in mice with Sjögren’s syndrome in 2008, and the drug showed effectiveness in treating sicca, or dryness, symptoms. After treatment, saliva production increased and the development of autoimmune-related lesions was prevented. Another Japanese study conducted in 2009 showed similarly positive results in boosting saliva production, and showed no difference in adverse effects between people taking the drug and taking a placebo, showing the drug is safe.

Targeting B Cells

Other research efforts delve into the possible roots of Sjögren’s syndrome. What factors cause the body’s immune system to malfunction and attack glands, drying body tissues?

A recent Dutch study published earlier this year showed that development of targeted biologic therapies for Sjögren’s must attack B cells – a type of lymphocyte, or white blood cell. The researchers reported that depletion of B cells likely leads to the restoration of saliva production, and helps treat other, non-gland-related problems associated with Sjögren’s syndrome, such as skin disorders or neurological problems. New biologic drugs developed to target these cells should be studied further, the researchers note.