British research raises possibilty of future treatments to repair MS damage

British research raises possibilty of future treatments to repair MS damage
06 December 2010

Myelin, the coating that protects nerve axons, is lost in MS and can lead to the nerve fibres becoming damaged. Following demyelination, cells known as oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) migrate to the site of the damage and differentiate into oligodendrocytes, the cells which are responsible for regenerating myelin. These cells are found naturally throughout the brain and spinal cord. However, in people with MS the potential for remyelination is limited as this process doesn't appear to get activated.

Using a rat model, scientists in Cambridge and Edinburgh have been studying why this pathway fails in people with MS and whether they might encourage the stem cells that are present in the brain to regenerate myelin more efficiently and repair the damage that has occurred. They identified a signalling pathway that appears to play a key role in myelin repair and by targeting this pathway they encouraged the stem cells present in the rat brains' to repair myelin. Further work is needed to see whether this mechanism will also work in people with MS.

The researchers hope that their work will help identify drugs that can activate this pathway and encourage myelin repair in people with MS. A drug that targets this pathway already exists in cancer treatment, but more research is needed to determine whether it might be used as a treatment in MS.

Pam Macfarlane, Chief Executive, MS Trust said: "Exploration of processes that might repair areas of damage to myelin is another important area of MS research and this may eventually allow people to recover function that has been lost to disability. This is still an early study in rodents, but it will be very interesting to see how it develops."

The researchers cautioned that it will be some time before this research translates into a potential treatment. They envisage it will take around five years before a first small scale trial in humans can be carried out and a further five to ten years before a treatment might become available.