To stop MS we need to find treatments that repair the damage to the protective myelin coating around nerves. This will compliment treatments that aim to stop immune attacks and protect nerves from damage.
We’re investing in 13 myelin repair projects, including our world-class research centres in Cambridge and Edinburgh that are working to do just that.
It’s still early days, but we’re starting to see treatments that repair myelin being tested in clinical trials.
Find out more about myelin repair
What is myelin?
Myelin is the protective coating that surrounds nerves - a bit like the insulation on an electrical wire. Myelin plays a vital role in how nerves work and protects them from damage too.
In MS, immune cells attack the protective myelin coating around our nerve cells. When myelin becomes damaged, messages find it harder to get through – or can’t get through at all. That’s what causes the symptoms of
MS. These symptoms can be far ranging, depending on where in the central nervous system (CNS) the attack has occurred.
How does myelin repair work?
Our bodies have an amazing capacity to repair myelin and get nerves working properly again.
Myelin is replaced by a special myelin-making cell in the brain called an oligodendrocyte. These cells are made from a type of stem cell found in our brains, called oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs).
Nerve cells can signal for help when their myelin is damaged. When the signal reaches the stem cells, they travel to the site of damage and mature into myelin-making cells. And then the damage can be repaired.
Unfortunately, this repair becomes less effective over time and doesn’t work as well as it should in MS.
Researchers are working to understand how myelin repair is affected in MS. We can use this knowledge to design treatments to put myelin back on nerves.
Why is myelin repair research important?
If myelin isn't repaired properly the nerve could be exposed to damage. Once the nerve is damaged messages can no longer be sent, and MS starts to progress.
That’s why we need to find ways to put myelin back on nerves. This is no small task but there’s lots of exciting research happening in this area.
Myelin repair research - what do we know?
Researchers have identified some molecules that play a vital role in myelin repair and some of the pathways that are involved.
Clinical trial progress
Researchers are testing the benefits of a number of myelin repair treatments in clinical trials:
Researchers in Belfast revealed a role for the immune system in myelin repair in March 2017. This is the first time the immune system has been linked to myelin repair.
Our researchers in Cambridge have found a new role for well-established treatment for breast cancer. Tamoxifen boosted the amount of myelin repair that took place in response to myelin damage.
In 2015 scientists at our Cambridge Centre revealed a role for vitamin D in myelin repair. Adding vitamin D to brain cells boosted the production of myelin making cells by 80%.
Researchers found that the vitamin D binding protein works with a protein already known to be involved in myelin repair, called RXR gamma.
A US study identified two unlikely candidates as potential myelin repair therapies in 2015. One of the drugs is used to treat eczema and the other, athlete’s foot. Both treatments were found to boost the number of myelin making cells in the lab.
Our myelin repair research
- We’re investing in some exciting myelin repair projects.
Our research centres
We’re proud to fund two dedicated MS research centres in the UK. Working together, our Cambridge and Edinburgh centres have created a world-class research environment. And they’ve made a number of key myelin repair discoveries.
Our researchers are working to understand myelin repair in more detail and identify targets for drug development.
Every discovery brings new opportunities for us to develop myelin repair treatments – and these could be effective for everyone with MS.
- Can Gas6 help repair myelin in MS? Could modified heparin promote myelin repair?
- Do microglia immune cells produce useful targets for myelin repair?
- Does fractalkine coordinate myelin repair in MS? Can GSK3 promote myelin repair?
- Finding new ways to protect oligodendrocytes
- Targeting activin receptors to promote myelin repair
- Identifying new ways to repair myelin
Reprogramming cells to improve regeneration
We know that myelin regeneration happens less as we age. And researchers think that this could be because stem cells in our central nervous system (OPCs) become less responsive as they get older.
Our researchers are testing if they can partially reprogramme ageing OPCs to improve myelin repair.
Boosting myelin repair using mesenchymal stem cells
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are found in many parts of the body and are usually taken from bone marrow, skin and fat tissue. We have some evidence to suggest they might help promote myelin repair and have a positive effect on the immune system. We’re funding a phase 2 clinical trial testing the safety and potential benefits of mesenchymal stem cell therapy, called STREAMS.