The medical field is abuzz with news that a new form of Multiple Sclerosis treatment could dramatically halt MS’s escalating symptoms by retraining the body’s own defenses.
Multiple Sclerosis is a condition that affects the central nervous system where the immune system mistakes the nerve fibers, known as myelin, to be a threatening force, like the flu virus, and attacks those fibers, causing damage and often debilitating symptoms.
The new treatment, developed in conjunction with the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, takes a blood sample from the patient and then couples the white blood cells, a part of the immune system, with fragments of myelin. This is then injected back into the patient.
As reported on in Science Translational Medicine, this resulted in the immune systems of the nine patients involved in this test being in effect retrained to no longer consider myelin a threat, and as a result the attacks on nerve fibers decreased.
The trial wasn’t in fact designed to test the effectiveness of this treatment, which explains the small sample of people used, but rather it was to test the “feasibility, safety, and tolerability” of the regimen.
However, as well as finding that the MS sufferers were able to cope well with the new treatment, the scientists overseeing this trial found that the treatment reduced attacks on the nerve fibers by a considerable 50-75%.
While the small number of people involved in this study means that the treatment’s effectiveness cannot be accurately measured, this is a very encouraging start that is based on a firm grounding of more than 30 year’s worth of research.
MS is a complicated disorder that can show itself in a variety of different ways, so talking about “common symptoms” is problematic.
For the sake of our general overview, however, a few often reported symptoms include:
- vision problems
- balance problems
- fatigue and extreme fatigue
- bladder problems
- stiffness and loss of mobility
- muscle spasms
- clouded thinking and memory problems
There is at the moment no cure for MS, and MS is often, though not always, a progressive disease that worsens over time. The range of treatments offered to MS patients present their own problems too.
One of the methods of stopping attacks on the myelin is to suppress the immune system. Of course, by doing this, one leaves MS sufferers open to a variety of everyday illnesses and an increased susceptibility to potentially serious infection.
The beauty of the so-called retraining treatment discussed above is that, while it can not reverse the damage already done by MS, it sidesteps the problems that come with immune suppressants. For this reason, the treatment has been referred to as a (potentially) massive breakthrough.
“The therapy stops autoimmune responses that are already activated and prevents the activation of new autoimmune cells. Our approach leaves the function of the normal immune system intact. That is the Holy Grail,” Stephen Miller, professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University, is quoted as saying by the Independent.
It is important to stress again that this treatment cannot reverse the damage done by MS, but it could, when coupled with breakthroughs in early diagnosis, offer a real possibility of preventing sufferers from developing MS’s more severe symptoms.
The BBC quotes Dr Susan Kohlhaas, head of biomedical research at the MS Society, as saying, “Being able to specifically stop the immune system attacking myelin but still keeping it fully functional poses an exciting potential therapy for people with MS. More research is now needed and we eagerly await the results of any future larger clinical trials of this therapy.”
The research teams involved in developing this treatment now intend to widen their trials, but will concentrate on early-stage MS sufferers who stand to benefit the most from this treatment.
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