Scientists say they have shown that the damage done to nerve cells in multiple sclerosis could be reversed by activating stem cells in the body, and that their research could potentially lead to treatments able to regenerate a healthy nervous system.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects many millions worldwide. The symptoms include fatigue, blurred vision, cognitive problems and muscle spasms, and, in the age groups affected, it can often be young adults, between 20 and 30 years.

In people with MS the immune system attacks the nerve fibres’ myelin sheaths, the protective layers of cells that also speed up the transmission of electrical signals. When the myelin is degraded the nerve fibres can get damaged, and the signals they carry disrupted. Treatments at present involve suppressing the immune system to stop it damaging the myelin and myelin-forming cells. But this system will not regenerate damaged myelin.

“Therapies that repair damage are the missing link in treating multiple sclerosis,” said Robin Franklin, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, who led the latest work. “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.” There are stem cells throughout the brain and spinal cord that could regenerate myelin but in many MS patients these cells do not seem to be activated.

In his research, published on Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, Franklin found a way to activate the “RXR pathway”, a crucial cell development route that turns brain and spinal cord stem cells into myelin-making cells, in rats and mice. If the same pathway could be switched on by drugs in humans, the cells could regenerate damaged myelin sheaths, he said.

Charles ffrench-Constant, a medical neurologist at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of the paper, said: “The aim ... is to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis with the eventual aim of stopping and reversing it. This discovery is very exciting as it could potentially pave the way to finding drugs that could help repair damage caused to the important layers that protect nerve cells in the brain.” Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society in the U.K., which backed the research, 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.” Franklin said there could be preliminary trials of potential drugs within five years and treatments within 15 years. “The caveat is that the road from where we are to a treatment is unpredictable, but at least we now have a road to go down.”

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010