MS Research News Round-Up: March 2018

March is Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Awareness Month. All month, nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups will highlight promising research into the autoimmune disease.

We've gathered together some of the newest MS research, which is exploring promising new targets and treatments for the condition. With more than 120 MS clinical trials looking for volunteers, more breakthroughs are on the horizon, too.

The latest in stem cell research for MS

A recent study from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge found that, in mice, skin cells reprogrammed into brain cells, then transplanted into the central nervous system, help reduce inflammation in the brain and and may be able to help repair damage caused by MS.

Stem cells that have been reprogrammed from the body's own skin cells are less likely to be rejected by the immune system, the researchers say.

Chronic MS leads to increased levels of succinate, which sends signals to cells leading to inflammation in cerebrospinal fluid. Transplanting the stem cells into the cerebrospinal fluid reduces the amount of succinate and reprograms the cells that it affects, reducing inflammation and damage to the brain and spinal cord.

"Our mouse study suggests that using a patient's reprogrammed cells could provide a route to personalised treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases, including progressive forms of MS," Dr Stefano Pluchino, lead author of the study , said in a press release.

A potential new option for relapsing MS

In MS, the immune system attacks myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers. New research has developed an approach to identify pieces of proteins, called peptides, that can train immune cells to ignore myelin and suppress MS attacks.

Following a study with 6 people that showed early signs of safety and efficacy, 43 participants with relapsing MS were given the treatment in an open-label study, meaning there was no placebo control and patients knew they were taking the treatment. Disease activity in MRI scans was greatly reduced for participants, a promising sign for the treatment.

The team plans to launch a second Phase II trial later in 2018.

A promising new target for MS

Natalizumab (marketed as Tysabri) is a powerful MS drug that unfortunately has powerful side effects, too. The drug was taken off the market in 2004 when three cases of a rare and sometimes fatal neurological disorder appeared in patients taking the drug. It was brought back to the market in 2006 and is used widely, but it still involves a small risk of developing a dangerous neurological disorder.

The drug's target is a molecule that's on the surface of some immune cells. In order for these cells to get out of the bloodstream and into the brain, where at least some cause damage in MS, that molecule is required. Natalizumab works by preventing the molecule's entry.

Some of the immune cells the drug prevents from the leaving the bloodstream can't carry out their regular tasks, though, which is most likely the cause of the drug's side effects.

Now, the researcher responsible for Natalizumab and his colleagues have identified a new drug target using an advanced cell-labeling technology. Using this new technology, it's possible to draw finer distinctions between types of cells that were previously thought to be identical. The new target appears to be involved in MS, based on experiments on mouse models, but is absent on the surfaces of T cells and B cells, which are critical to the immune system.

Researchers hope the new target will work better for MS symptoms, without the side effects.

MS research can't move forward without volunteers. If you're interested in taking part, start searching for a clinical trial near you below.