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Glucosamine-Like Supplement May Help Multiple Sclerosis


People with multiple sclerosis may experience some relief from a glucosamine-like supplement called N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc), according to a new study from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Researchers report that the supplement “corrects a genetic defect that induces cells to attack the body in MS,” noted Michael Demetriou, associate professor of neurology and microbiology and molecular genetics at UCI.

Multiple sclerosis is a challenge to treat

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic autoimmune disease, which means the body attacks healthy cells and tissues. In this case, the attack is on the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, optic nerves) and can cause a wide range of symptoms including numbness in the limbs, loss of vision, paralysis, muscle weakness, bowel problems, and many others.

The target of attack in multiple sclerosis is the myelin, a fatty sheath that protects nerve fibers. White blood cells called T-cells become sensitized to myelin and enter the central nervous system, where they damage the nerve fibers. Why T-cells are prompted to cause this damage is not known.

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Researchers at UCI discovered that oral N-acetylglucosamine can hinder the growth and function of the T-cells that attack the immune system in people who have multiple sclerosis. N-acetylglucosamine is a chemical derived from the outer shells of shellfish. As a supplement, it is taken for osteoarthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

In a previous study, investigators found that GlcNAc was beneficial in another autoimmune disorder, inflammatory bowel disease, where it significantly improved symptoms in eight of 12 children who received GlcNAc for two years. In addition, animal studies show that GlcNAc suppressed autoimmune response and reversed the progression to paralysis in mouse models of multiple sclerosis.

Currently, treatment of multiple sclerosis consists of medications to help modify the course of the disease and treat symptoms. Disease-modifying drugs include interferon beta-1a (Avonex, Betaseron, Rebif), fingolimod (Gilenya), and mitoxantrone (Novantrone).

Results of the new study and previous research “identify metabolic therapy using dietary supplements such as GlcNAc as a possible treatment for autoimmune diseases,” noted Demetriou. It is too early to say whether GlcNAc should be used in patients who have multiple sclerosis. However, because GlcNAc supplements are available over-the-counter, anyone who wants to use these supplements should consult their doctors before starting treatment.

University of California, Irvine