British researchers announced this week that they may have found a way to reverse damage in the central nervous system caused by multiple sclerosis, in a study hailed by campaigners as a major breakthrough.
The study by scientists at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh has raised hopes of a new treatment within 15 years for the disabling neurological condition, which affects millions of people worldwide.
The team identified a mechanism essential to regenerating myelin sheaths the layers of insulation that protect nerve fibres in the brain and showed how it could be used to make the brain’s own stem cells undertake this repair.
The loss of myelin in MS sufferers leads to damage to the nerve fibres in the brain that send messages to other parts of the body, leading to symptoms ranging from mild numbness to crippling paralysis.
“Therapies that repair damage are the missing link in treating multiple sclerosis,” said Professor Robin Franklin, director of the MS Society’s Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair at the University of Cambridge.
“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.”
Britain’s MS Society, which part funded the research along with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the United States, hailed the study and said it could lead to clinical trials within five years and treatment within 15 years.
“For people with MS this is one of the most exciting developments in recent years,” said chief executive Simon Gillespie.
“It’s hard to put into words how revolutionary this discovery could be and how critical it is to continue research into MS.”
The research, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, identified a specific type of molecule called RXR-gamma, which appears to be important in promoting myelin repair.
The team found that stimulating RXR-gamma in rats encouraged the brain’s own stem cells to regenerate myelin.