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New Kind of Therapy Shows Promise in MS Patients

Approach may shield patients' immune systems to allow safer treatment, study suggests

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In addition to fighting germs, another important role of the immune system is to get rid of dead and dying tissues. When these tissues are collected by the spleen, it sends out a signal to the rest of the immune system that the dying tissues are just harmless waste.

The new treatment aims to take advantage of the body's waste disposal system. In attaching the myelin proteins to dying white blood cells, the idea is to get the body to also recognize those proteins as harmless and hopefully leave them alone.

In animal models of MS, the same group of researchers has shown that using this system to induce immune tolerance can stop the progression of disease.

This was the first test of this kind of therapy in humans, and although the study was too small to show whether the treatment changed the course of the disease, researchers did see some promising signs.

Blood tests taken before and after the treatment showed that the infusions turned down immune reactivity to myelin proteins, but didn't affect the immune response to potential infections, like tetanus.

"We were only trying to turn down the myelin responses, which we did," said study researcher Stephen Miller, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. "And we didn't turn down the response to tetanus. That suggests ... that this therapy, just like in mice, can induce tolerance in humans."

Patients reported mild and moderate side effects during their treatments. Nearly all these problems, except for a metallic taste in the mouth, were judged to be unrelated to the study treatment.

The six patients with mild disease activity showed no new symptoms or worsening in their conditions three months after the infusions. What's more, MRI scans showed no new areas of inflammation after their treatments.

Two of the three patients with more active disease had worsening symptoms within two weeks of treatment. Those symptoms cleared up with steroid treatments. MRI scans showed all three patients developed new lesions that indicated a worsening of inflammation.

None of the patients lost neurologic function during the six months they were followed after their treatments.

"Whether it's going to have a longstanding effect, or an effect in locking down the disease symptoms in MS patients, is going to take a phase 2 or phase 3 trial," said Miller, who disclosed that he shares rights to a patent on the technique.

The study was supported by private grants from foundations in Germany and the United States, and by funding from the German government.

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