Essentially all research that may help us learn how to stop disease activity ultimately requires a better understanding of the role that the immune system plays in MS. This system is involved both in the inflammatory attacks on myelin and, very possibly, in the axonal injury that appears to contribute to longer-term disability. This includes studies on
- components of the immune system such as T cells, B cells, and antibodies
- understanding why women are affected by MS more than twice as often as men
- determining whether differences in disease pattern hold a key to better therapies
- identification of new targets for therapeutic intervention; and the identification of substances that are involved in producing axonal injury.
We especially need to know more about the molecules that the immune system uses to attack the nervous system, because each of these serves as a potential therapeutic target for new therapies, with the aim of treating the disease while leaving the rest of the immune system capable of fighting infections. Researchers are also identifying the body’s natural immune messenger molecules that dampen abnormal immune activity and that may therefore be used as therapies, as well as developing “decoys” to waylay attacking immune cells.
We’re making progress – for example:
- Deeper understanding of destructive and protective immune factors is opening up new opportunities for targeting specific sites along the immune attack pathway to turn off the attack or to protect brain tissues.
- There is a new understanding of the role of immune B cells, and at least one experimental therapy (rituxumab) that targets them
- Trials of oral therapies are underway
- Attempts are being made to block only immune cells that recognize myelin, leaving the rest of the protective immune system intact.
A few examples of the immunology studies recently funded by the National MS Society:
Harvard and MIT/Broad Institute suggested that dietary salt can speed the development of an MS-like disease in mice, and provided new insights on immune system activity involved in MS. While more research needs to be done to confirm a role for salt in triggering MS, or to determine whether reducing salt can inhibit MS immune attacks, these studies pinpoint new avenues for strategies that can decrease MS attacks. Read more here.
Researchers identified a protein that may be a target of the immune attack in some people with MS. An immune response to this protein – a protein called “KIR4.1,” which is found on several types of brain cells – was observed in the serum of 47% of people with MS who were tested. Further research is needed to confirm these findings, and to understand what the role of this protein may play in MS and its potential for developing new treatments. Read more here.
Researchers found evidence that immune cells known as B cells from people with MS may produce toxic factors that harm brain cells, in particular, cells that make myelin, the key substance needed for nerve transmission. If this factor (or factors) can be identified and confirmed to play a role in MS disease progression, it may serve as an important target for developing new MS therapies. Read more here.