Multiple sclerosis is a progressive, degenerative autoimmune disease that has challenged scientists who are searching for its causes and how to prevent this devastating condition. Now a research team has uncovered an important multiple sclerosis trigger that could open doors to new prevention and treatment opportunities.
Multiple sclerosis discovery is significant
More than 2 million people around the world suffer with multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that affects the spinal cord and brain, damages nerve cells, and causes an array of serious symptoms that can be debilitating. Currently there is no cure for multiple sclerosis, and ways to prevent the disease are also unknown.
Hot on the trail of better understanding multiple sclerosis is a team from the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease at the University of California--San Francisco (UCSF), who used an advanced imaging technique to observe the nerve damage occurring in mice with multiple sclerosis. Their observations led them to identify what appears to be a trigger for multiple sclerosis.
The trigger is a protein (fibrinogen) that has clotting abilities and which is also able to cross the blood-brain barrier (a membrane-like barrier that protects the brain). Once through the barrier, fibrinogen can prompt the immune system to create an environment that damages the nerve cells and thus start the cascade of symptoms characteristic of the disease.
In addition to identifying the protein, the investigators also uncovered a way to stop it from setting off the immune response without taking away the protein's beneficial function, which is to help clot the blood.
A unique feature of this latest research is that scientists were able to view individual cells in the living spinal cords and brains of mice in real time and thus watch the nerve cells function throughout different stages of the disease. Previous imaging techniques have used still images of nerve damage.
According to Katerina Akassoglou, professor in neurology at UCSF, "To successfully treat MS, we must first identify what triggers the disease and what enables its progression." Akassoglou and her team appear to have made a significant advance in this area.
Other important finding in this study
In addition to identifying fibrinogen as the main protein trigger for multiple sclerosis and observing how it can lead to damaged nerve cells, the scientists also found a way to stop the leakage. This discovery is especially critical, because if scientists can target the fibrinogen activity, they could eventually develop "a new therapeutic strategy," according to Akassoglou.
In the study, the investigators found that when they genetically altered the fibrinogen in the mice with multiple sclerosis, the protein failed to trigger the response that leads to nerve damage. However, the modification did not prevent fibrinogen from conducting its beneficial function of helping blood clot.
The bottom line
Although this latest discovery does not give clinicians a cure for multiple sclerosis, it does significantly enhance what is known about the disease and provides a novel avenue for scientists to explore ways to prevent and stop progression of the disease.
Davalos D et al. Fibrinogen-induced perivascular microglial clustering is required for the development of axonal damage in neuroinflammation. Nature Communications 2012 Nov; article no. 1227; doi:10.1038/ncomms2230
Image: Wikimedia Commons