Understanding Myelin in Multiple Sclerosis
A better understanding of myelin and how it works (or doesn’t work) can be helpful when reading about research and studies of MS and the potential impact they may have on the disease. That’s one reason why a new report about myelin from a team of scientists at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute is of interest.
For people who have multiple sclerosis, the word myelin is a familiar term. Myelin is the protective covering on nerve fibers, and when it is damaged or destroyed, as is characteristic of multiple sclerosis, individuals can experience a wide variety of symptoms and life-altering events.
As you probably already know, some research of multiple sclerosis focuses on stopping the damage and destruction of myelin. However, according to Professor Robin Franklin of Stem Cell Medicine and head of Translational Science at the Wellcome Trust-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, this is not the whole story when it comes to this protective coating.
3 things about myelin
In fact, Franklin noted in a recent Neuroscience News article that treating multiple sclerosis involves more than damaged myelin. Two other important factors are the debris that accumulates as a result of the destruction and the need to ensure the environment around the damaged cells is healthy enough to allow myelin to regenerate.
It is similar to watching an old building crumble and fall to the ground. Once it is a pile of rubble, you need to remove the pieces and clean up the area so you can rebuild.
Currently, however, researchers have not yet developed a way to regenerate the damaged tissue. To add insult to injury, the activity of the oligodendrocytes (the cells that are responsible for remyelinating the nerve fibers) declines as people age and with the duration of the disease.
Now here’s some good news, according to Franklin. He and his team have found that it’s possible to reverse the effects of age on remyelination, “which gives us some confidence that we can use the brain’s own OPCs for myelin regeneration.”
OPCs are oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, a type of stem cell found in the brain. The OPCs are critical because they are responsible for the formation of oligodendrocytes.
Of course, there’s a tricky part to this process. Experts have yet to fully understand how the brain decides there is damage and starts the repair process. If the experts can figure that out, then they will need to understand how to kickstart the brain’s natural reparative process so remyelination will occur.
Fortunately, Franklin and his colleagues are working on some ideas on the subject, and their findings thus far have already sparked tests and upcoming clinical trials. For example:
- One test will involve drugs that can enhance signals sent in the brain that may stimulate the repair process
- Clinical trials are planned that will use a drug that can prompt a molecule in OPCs to then help form oligodendrocytes and thus myelin
- One team has already found that injecting brain stem cells into mice that have multiple sclerosis improves conditions so that the brain can use its own healing powers to fix or restore damaged fibers
Other research on myelin repair
Another study was recently released about how to repair myelin in multiple sclerosis. In that research, which was conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the scientists experimented with using cultured human cells from the placenta to initiate the repair process.
Thus far, the results look promising. Not only was use of the special cells, which are similar to mesenchymal stem cells, found to be safe for the patients in the study, they also were observed to have reparative properties and thus the potential to fix damaged nerve tissue.
Other study results were reported in May 2014 by Bionure Inc., which has been experimenting with a new potential drug called BN201. Thus far pre-clinical trials (which uses animal cells) have shown the drug can promote repair of myelin.
Yes, there is a long road to travel until we have ways to repair myelin. Hopefully some of the scientists will reach the goal in record time.