Published on December 5, 2010 at 9:42 PM
By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
There seems to a glimmer of hope for tens of thousands of multiple sclerosis sufferers as researchers discover a way to repair damaged nerves with stem cells. The British team says their findings could lead to the development of drugs that repair nerves in the brain and spinal cord and potentially reverse some of the symptoms of MS.
At present nearly 100,000 Britons suffer from MS, an incurable nerve disease that causes loss of mobility, sight problems, tiredness and excruciating pain eventually leading to death. The disease affects myelin, the substance that surrounds all nerves in the brain and spinal cord. This impairs the way messages are transmitted from the brain to the rest of the body. Women are twice as likely to develop MS than men.
The researcher team from Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities have discovered a way of stimulating stem cells in the brain to help repair the damaged myelin. In people with MS, the natural process by which lost myelin is rebuilt and replaced is blocked. Scientists have been looking for ways to switch the mechanism back on by focusing on oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), a type of stem cell needed for myelin repair. They found the principle to work in laboratory rats wherein injections of stem cells with a chemical called retinoic acid could help repair the myelin. The chemical retinoic acid seemed to act as a “biochemical switch” that triggers the repair. The research findings were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The researchers believe this would open new avenues in MS therapy.
Professor Robin Franklin, director of the MS Society’s Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair at Cambridge University, who led the study, said, “Therapies that repair damage are the missing link in treating multiple sclerosis. In this study we have identified a means by which the brain’s own stem cells can be encouraged to undertake this repair, opening up the possibility of a new regenerative medicine for this devastating disease.”
Simon Gillespie, of the MS Society, said, “For people with MS this is one of the most exciting developments in recent years…It’s hard to put into words how revolutionary this discovery could be and how critical it is to continue research into MS. We’re delighted to have funded the first stage of this work and we’re now looking into funding it further.”