Scientists from the Queen’s University in Belfast have discovered that brain repair is facilitated by specific cells from the immune system. This fundamental breakthrough could revolutionize the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and other debilitating neurological disorders.
The research was led by Dr Denise Fitzgerald and Dr Yvonne Dombrowski, both from the Wellcome Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast. Scientists from across the world have hailed the research as a landmark study in unravelling the mysteries of how brain damage is repaired.
MS is the most common neurological disease affecting young adults and affects 2.3 million people worldwide, of which 4,500 people live in Northern Ireland.
The disease is the result of damage to myelin, the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibres of the central nervous system including the optic nerve, spinal cord and the brain. This damage is caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the myelin sheath covering nerve fibres in the spinal cord and the brain. MS’ symptoms typically include pain, fatigue, paralysis, and vision loss.
Current medical treatments can only limit relapses, but the damage already done by the condition can’t be reversed. What is exciting about this new research is that the team have revealed beneficial effects that immune cells have in myelin repair. This has the potential to reverse myelin damage. Experts from San Francisco, Cambridge, Maynooth, Edinburgh and Nice collaborated in the study.
In an article published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers show that a protein made by specific cells within the immune system triggers the brain’s stem cells to mature into oligodendrocytes that are capable of repairing myelin. With this discovery, researchers can now use the knowledge to develop medicines that will boost these specific cells. An entirely new class of treatments may therefore be developed in the future.
Dr Dombrowski, the lead author of the report, explained the importance of the new research. She noted that a fresh and unique approach was taken at Queen’s to uncover how the immune system drives brain repair. This information is critical to designing future treatments that tackle MS and other neurological diseases in a new way by repairing damage rather than only reducing attacks. Dombrowski believes that combining these approaches will deliver better outcomes for patients in the future.