New study results show promise for way to 'switch off' MS

Published date: 04 Sep 2014 at 8:49AM

Interesting new data has been published this week on how the immune system could be altered so it stops attacking myelin, the nerve coating that becomes damaged in MS.

In MS, the body’s own immune cells mistakenly attack the myelin layer surrounding nerve fibres. Some current treatments for relapsing remitting MS work by dampening down this immune response.

This new study takes a different approach called immune ‘desensitisation’.

How the therapy works

Desensitisation therapy is widely used to treat allergies, but scientists have only recently looked into it as a potential treatment for autoimmune conditions like MS. 

It relies on 'switching off' (or desensitising) the autoimmune response to myelin. This is done by giving somebody parts of the proteins that are normally targeted by the immune attack. Gradually increasing the dose of these proteins means the immune system 'gets used to' them and stops attacking myelin.

A clinical trial published in 2006 tested one type of desensitisation therapy in people with progressive MS, but found negative results. The therapy was not significantly better at slowing disability progression compared to a placebo (dummy) treatment.

Encouraging results

This new study, however, reveals the detail of how the autoimmune response can be turned off in a laboratory model of MS. By administering the protein in gradually increasing doses, the researchers were able to keep the immune attack switched off.

They also analysed how the immune cells changed during this process, and identified some important genes involved. This could help scientists understand how and why the immune response goes wrong in MS.

Further clinical trials are now required to investigate if this type of therapy could be effective at slowing or stopping MS progression. If successful, this could pave the way for future treatments for people with all types of MS, and could also be applied to other autoimmune conditions.

New options for future clinical trials

Nick Rijke, Executive Director of Policy and Research at the MS Society, said: "This is a really interesting and encouraging study, and adds to our understanding of how scientists might be able to alter the way the immune system responds in people with MS.

"A previous trial of a similar therapy was unsuccessful in people with MS, but this latest study, although conducted in mice, offers new options for future clinical trials that one day could lead to a low risk treatment for people with the condition."

This study was carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol and was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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Page last updated: 16 Sep 2014

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