February 14, 2022
Being a kid isn’t always easy, but growing up with lupus makes it a much harder challenge. That’s why Harvard University’s Associate Professor Dr. Joyce Chang has a special place in her heart for these kids and chose to focus her career on their care. In honor of American Heart Month, we interviewed Dr. Chang about her LRA-funded project that focuses specifically on finding a way to predict and treat the potential heart disease that kids with lupus can develop as they grow up.
Kids are at greatest risk for developing serious complications and organ damage since the impact of lupus inflammation and the side effects of treatments like steroids can accumulate over time. While they may not show any symptoms for years, they are at higher risk for heart attack and stroke as adults.
Dr. Chang’s project is monitoring 60 children and teens over one-two years with a comprehensive panel of blood tests and imaging looking at the health of their hearts, carotid arteries, and smaller blood vessels. She is focusing particularly at neutrophil extracellular traps (“NETs”) – the physical “networks” of DNA and proteins released by the immune system’s first responders called neutrophils to catch and kill bacteria. While NETs help protect against infection, for kids with lupus, they may serve as a double-edged sword that also injures blood vessels and contributes to heart disease. She hopes to have results to share in 2023.
Tips for Heart Health
Dr. Chang advises her young patients on how to maintain heart health including:
- Make sure you do everything you can to control the disease so damage to the heart and other tissues can be minimized. Take your lupus medicine and see your rheumatologist regularly.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle – eat healthy, exercise
- Pay attention to and reduce stress
However Dr. Chang notes this change in lifestyle is not easy.
“Some kids and teens do very well and grow up with a lot of life skills that their healthy peers don’t have. But there are many more teens who don’t do well, and suffer from long-term physical and mental health issues. That’s part of why I am so passionate about my work – because we can and need to do better. Research is really important for understanding what we should be doing during this critical period of their lives and developing a holistic approach to treating the whole person.”