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Image of the Epstein barr virus under the microscope

Immunotherapy that targets EBV investigated as potential treatment for MS

Results from a small Phase 1 trial have shown that a type of immunotherapy which targets cells infected with Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) could help people with MS.

Targeting MS with your own immune cells

Past research has shown that there is a relationship between EBV and MS. In this trial, researchers aimed to find out if a type of immune cell, called a T cell, can be used to kill EBV-infected cells. They hypothesised that EBV-infected cells in the brain could be responsible for some disease progression. To test this they developed anti-EBV immune cells and looked for improvements for people with MS.

The trial, which took place in Australia, involved 5 people with primary progressive MS and 5 people with secondary progressive MS. The T cells were taken from participants and grown in the lab. They were then made to recognise and target cells infected with EBV before being given back to the participants.

The aim of this small early stage trial was to find out whether T cell therapy is a feasible and safe treatment option for MS. Participants also took part in a range of tests to measure fatigue, quality of life and levels of disability.

What did the study show?

The results of the study showed that it is possible to collect T cells that target EBV from people with MS, grow them in the lab and reinject them.

Of the 10 participants, 7 showed some clinical improvements. Improvements in fatigue were seen in the whole group overall. None of the participants experienced any serious adverse effects from the therapy.

Professor Khanna, a researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, said that showing the treatment was safe for people with MS was an important part of the trial:

"Safety was a huge concern for us - would we actually be making the disease worse? That was the biggest achievement from my point of view, that we were able to show giving this type of immunotherapy is absolutely safe."

What happens next?

This was a very small study and further research is needed. According to Professor Khanna, “We do need to now run proper trials, which have controlled subjects to really prove these early signs."

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, our Director of Research, said:

“This new therapy aims to prevent disease progression for people with MS. And we know that infections like Epstein Barr virus (EBV) are likely to play a role in this. The results of this study show that this new therapy, which targets cells infected with EBV, showed promising clinical improvement and no serious adverse effects for a small number of people with MS. But further research is needed to know how effective it is and to test its safety further.

"We believe that with the right investment, we can stop MS. But to understand if this therapy has real potential we need larger scale, fully blinded trials, and to compare the results to those with a placebo (dummy drug).”

A Phase 2 trial is planned to take place across Australia and the United States.

Read the paper on the JCI Insight website