CHICAGO — For all of her 20s, when Edjuana Ross should have been relishing the thrill of early adulthood, she was instead in and out of hospitals, battling a disease that attacked her skin, brain and heart.

Now, at 33, she has her life back, thanks to a stem-cell transplant from her own bone marrow, a drastic, experimental treatment that could be promising for patients with severe lupus.

Ross' illness is in remission for the first time since her diagnosis shortly after high school graduation.

"I'm just trying to get used to being well, and it's a very weird feeling," Ross said.

The Park Forest, Ill., woman is among 48 patients with severe lupus who had the treatment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Thirty-three patients have had no disease symptoms for up to more than seven years following their transplants, said Northwestern's Dr. Richard Burt, who led the study.

Six patients died from causes unrelated to the treatment.

The probability of disease- free survival for five years was 50 percent, encouraging for those who failed more conventional treatment for the most severe form of lupus, a disease in which the body's immune system attacks its own organs and tissues.

"It turned out very well, showing that we could do this safely," Burt said.

The study appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association. It expands on short-term results with fewer patients the same researchers reported in 2000.

The definitive test will be a randomized study Burt's team is planning that will compare results for stem-cell transplant patients with those given standard lupus treatment.

About 1.5 million people nationwide have lupus, 90 percent of them women. Most are diagnosed during early adulthood.

Classic symptoms include rashes, joint pain and fatigue. Some patients have only mild cases, but many develop debilitating disease that randomly attacks vital organs. For about 5 percent, lupus is life-threatening and doesn't respond to conventional treatment.

Ross was one of these patients. Her symptoms persisted despite massive doses of the steroid prednisone. They included scarring rashes, joint pain, extreme fatigue, migraine headaches when lupus attacked her brain and a lupus-induced heart infection.

Prednisone can have severe side effects, including weight gain, thinning bones and tooth damage — all of which affected Ross. She says the drug also gave her diabetes.

She had the stem-cell bone marrow transplant in 2003, a procedure similar to that used to treat some forms of cancer. Despite the treatment's risks, which include severe infection and even death, Ross said she felt she had no other choice.

"I was sick and tired of being sick and tired," she said.

She was hospitalized for more than two months for the procedure. It involves doctors isolating stem cells from blood withdrawn through a catheter in the patient's neck. That's followed by several days of high-dose chemotherapy, which virtually shuts down the immune system.

The cleansed stem cells are returned to the body, and if the treatment is successful, they will regenerate a healthier immune system, Burt said.

A JAMA editorial says the results "do not necessarily represent 'cure,"' and it warns that many patients likely will have late relapses. But as a last-resort treatment, "the therapy offered substantial benefit," said the editorial by Drs. Michelle Petri and Robert Brodski of Johns Hopkins University.

The research climate "is rich in potential new therapies," the editorial said.

Ross says it took her a year to recuperate from her treatment, but now she feels "110 percent better" and is hoping to finish a master's degree in accounting.

"It gave me my life back," she said.