Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes have defined for the first time a key underlying process implicated in multiple sclerosis (MS)-a disease that causes progressive and irreversible damage to nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. This discovery offers new hope for the millions who suffer from this debilitating disease for which there is no cure.
Researchers in the laboratory of Gladstone Investigator Katerina Akassoglou, PhD, have identified in animal models precisely how a protein that seeps from the blood into the brain sets off a response that, over time, causes the nerve cell damage that is a key indicator of MS. These findings, which are reported in the latest issue of Nature Communications, lay the groundwork for much-needed therapies to treat this disease.
MS, which afflicts more than two million people worldwide, develops when the body's immune system attacks the brain. This attack damages nerve cells, leading to a host of symptoms including numbness, fatigue, difficulty walking, paralysis and loss of vision. While some drugs can delay these symptoms, they do not treat the disease's underlying cause-which researchers are only just beginning to understand.
"To successfully treat MS, we must first identify what triggers the disease and what enables its progression," said Dr. Akassoglou, who also directs the Gladstone Center for In Vivo Imaging Research and is a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, with which Gladstone is affiliated. "Here, we have shown that the leakage of blood in the brain acts as an early trigger that sets off the brain's inflammatory response-creating a neurotoxic environment that damages nerve cells."
Dr. Akassoglou and her team reached this conclusion by using advanced imaging techniques to monitor the disease's progression in the brain and spinal cord of mice modified to mimic the signs of MS. Traditional techniques only show "snapshots" of the disease's pathology. However, this analysis allows researchers to study individual cells within the living brain-and to monitor in real-time what happens to these cells as the disease worsens over time.
"In vivo imaging analysis let us observe in real-time which molecules crossed the blood-brain barrier," said Dimitrios Davalos, PhD, Gladstone staff research scientist, associate director of the imaging center and the paper's lead author. "Importantly, this analysis helped us identify the protein fibrinogen as the key culprit in MS, by demonstrating how its entry into the brain through leaky blood vessels impacted the health of individual nerve cells."