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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

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Brenda Goodman

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, June 5 (HealthDay News) -- A new therapy for multiple sclerosis that teaches the body to recognize and then ignore its own nerve tissue appears to be safe and well-tolerated in humans, a small new study shows.

If larger studies prove the technique can slow or stop the disease, the therapy would be a completely new way to treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and type 1 diabetes.

Most treatments for MS and other autoimmune diseases work by broadly suppressing immune function, leaving patients vulnerable to infections and cancers.

The new treatment targets only the proteins that come under attack when the immune system fails to recognize them as a normal part of the body. By creating tolerance to only a select few proteins, researchers hope they will be able to cure the disease but leave the rest of the body's defenses on guard.

"This is important work," said Dr. Lawrence Steinman, a professor of neurology at Stanford University who was not involved with the study.

"Very few investigators are trying therapies in humans aimed at simply turning off unwanted immune responses and leaving the rest of the immune system intact to fight infections -- to do surveillance against cancer," Steinman said. "The early results show encouragement."

For the study, published in the June 5 issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers in the United States and Germany recruited nine patients with MS. Seven had the relapsing-remitting form of the disease, while two others had secondary progressive MS (a more advanced phase). All were between the ages of 18 and 55, and were in good health except for their MS.

Blood tests conducted before the treatments showed that each patient had an immune reaction against at least one of seven myelin proteins.

Myelin is a white tissue made of fats and proteins that wraps nerve fibers, allowing them to conduct electrical signals through the body. In MS, the body attacks and gradually destroys these myelin sheaths. The damage disrupts nerve signals and leads to myriad symptoms, including numbness, tingling, weakness, loss of balance and disrupted muscle coordination.

Six patients in the study had low disease activity, while three others had a history of more active disease. Most were not experiencing symptoms at the time of their treatment.

On the day of the treatments, patients spent about two hours hooked up to a machine that filtered their blood, harvesting white cells while returning red cells and plasma to the body.

After the white cells were collected, they were washed and then combined with seven proteins that make up myelin tissue. A chemical was used to link the proteins to the white blood cells, which were dying.

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