MS Discoveries Edge Closer to Cure

From the WebMD Archives

May 31, 2002 -- Although researchers stop short of using the term "cure," several new discoveries may provide scientists with valuable clues about what causes multiple sclerosis and how to stop the nerve damage it causes.

In a study published in the June 2002 issue of Brain, Mayo Clinic researchers report they have found an enzyme that seems to play a role in spurring the tissue damage that occurs in MS and other similar diseases. Meanwhile, two new studies in the June 2002 issue of the journal Nature Medicine show that having high levels of body chemicals known as cytokines may help protect crucial nerve cells from damage.

Although the cause of multiple sclerosis (MS) is unknown, it's thought that the disease occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the insulation surrounding nerve cells. This insulation helps nerves conduct electrical impulses, allowing us to perform functions from movement to speech to vision to swallowing. The attack triggers a cascade of problems that eventually results in the loss of this insulation, a process called demyelination.

The condition affects about one out of every 1,000 people, but it's more common among women than men. MS typically strikes people between the ages of 20 and 40, with symptoms ranging from numbness and tingling to incontinence and paralysis.

In their study, Mayo Clinic researchers say they have found a dramatic increase in a newly discovered enzyme called MSP (myelencephalo-specific protease) in tissue samples damaged by MS.

"If you could control this enzyme, you could possibly decrease the development of the disease," says study author Isobel Scarisbrick, PhD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in a news release. "We're not reporting this as a cure, but it represents something that could be targeted for therapy."

Scarisbrick and colleagues are now developing tools to work with the enzyme and attempt to determine exactly what role it plays in the demyelination process.

In related research, two studies from the University of Wuerzburg in Austria and University of Melbourne in Australia shed light on the process of nerve cell damage that occurs in MS. Their research points to two cytokine chemicals in the body that may play a role in protecting some of the cells involved in this process.

The Austrian research team found mice that lacked the cytokine CNTF had a more severe form of MS than others. They suggest that this substance may protect certain nerve cells from damage.

The Australian team found that another cytokine, called Leukemia Inhibitory Factor (LIF), can reverse the loss of cells normally found in mice with MS. They say LIF has already been tested in humans and has been well tolerated in doses similar to those used in this animal study.

Researchers say these findings may serve as the basis for a new way to treat MS by targeting the process of cell damage itself.