Research at Bristol University has uncovered a way to hit the off switch for multiple sclerosis. The breakthrough could lead to treatment that would retrain the body to not attack its own tissue. This would improve the lives of millions of people. Those suffering from other autoimmune diseases like diabetes, Graves’ disease, and lupus could also benefit.
The multiple sclerosis off switch was discovered by applying a similar strategy used to treat allergies. Allergic desensitization gradually trains the body to not panic in response to otherwise harmless materials. Applied to what is called antigen-specific immunotherapy, the immune system is taught to not aggressively respond to its own body’s tissue, but instead to correctly protect against disease.
As such, the off switch isn’t so much hit as it is gradually moved by slowly adding fragments of proteins through a series of injections. In greater quantities, the proteins are generally attacked by the cells of someone with multiple sclerosis or diabetes. By increasing the amount of proteins over time, the body is able to be eased into accepting them.
“The immune system works by recognizing antigens which could cause infection,” lead author Dr. Bronwen Burton told The Telegraph. “In allergies the immune system mounts a response to something like pollen or nuts because it wrongly believes they will harm the body. But in autoimmune diseases the immune systems sees little protein fragments in your own tissue as foreign invaders and starts attacking them. What we have found is that by synthesizing those proteins in a soluble form we can desensitize the immune system by giving an escalating dose.”
The discovery, published in Nature Communications, was made in a trial using mice given conditions that mimic multiple sclerosis in humans. Nick Rijke of the MS Society appeared cautiously optimistic in his response to the Daily Mail UK.
“A previous trial of a similar therapy was unsuccessful in people with MS,” Rijke said. “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 method of hitting the off switch of multiple sclerosis will go into clinical trial at the biotechnology company Apitope, where responses to the treatment in human subjects will be observed.
In multiple sclerosis, myelin sheaths are mistakenly attacked, disrupting signals in the nervous system. That disruption can cause fatigue, cognitive impairment, chronic pain, muscle weakness, loss of mobility, and more. Current treatments involve suppressing the immune system, which comes with side effects like recurring infections, developing tumors and disrupting natural regulatory mechanisms. 2.5 million people are estimated to suffer from MS.
While the treatment was centered around MS, it is believed that application to other autoimmune diseases is possible. As such, the off switch for type 1 diabetes, Graves’ disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, and Factor VIII intolerance in haemophiliacs may have been discovered as well.
[Image credit: Joelle’s Emporium]