Written by Jeri Burtchell | Published on October 24, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on October 24, 2014
The “holy grail” of MS research is to figure out how to repair myelin and restore function.
Myelin is a fatty substance coating the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. It insulates the nerves and helps speed the conduction of electrical impulses along the spinal cord to and from the brain. In multiple sclerosis (MS), a person’s own immune system eats away at this myelin coating, disrupting the signals from the brain to the rest of the body.
All five of our senses, the control of our muscles, and even our thought processes depend on the transmission of nerve signals. When MS disrupts these pathways, a whole slate of symptoms can result. Depending on the site of the damage, or “lesion”, a person with MS can experience numbness, paralysis, or cognitive impairment. Pain, loss of vision, or trouble with bowel and bladder function are also common symptoms.
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Stopping or slowing the immune system from attacking myelin has been the main goal of MS therapies since the first treatment came on the market in 1993. There are 11 FDA-approved drugs today. All of them are designed to slow the rate of relapses and accumulation of disability. None of them can undo the scarring caused by MS. If the damage to myelin is severe enough, disability becomes permanent.
The body tries to repair the damage on its own using “building block” cells called oligodendrocytes to regrow the myelin. Early on in the disease, the repair process can restore most, if not all, nerve function. However, it becomes less efficient over time, and disability mounts.
So why does this myelin regeneration process eventually fail in MS? According to researches at Weill Cornell Medical College, the body relies on a balance of “on” and “off” signals in biological processes like remyelination. In MS, researchers believe, the repair of myelin is inhibited by the presence of “off” signals. “Off” signals warn your body that the environment is too hostile for growth. These danger signals are caused by the inflammatory processes at work in MS.
The “holy grail” of MS research is to figure out how to repair myelin and restore function. Remyelination could effectively reverse disability once thought to be permanent. There are scientists all over the world working toward this very goal.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine have recently discovered how to turn ordinary skin cells into oligodendrocytes. These are cells that can regrow myelin and reverse damage caused by diseases like MS. In a process known as “cellular reprogramming,” the proteins found in skin cells were retrained to become precursors to oligodendrocyte cells. The research team was able to quickly grow billions of these cells. This discovery will help scientists turn a readily abundant cell into a building block for myelin regrowth.
Other efforts to regrow myelin are also underway. Researchers at the University of Leipzig in Germany are in early stages of experimenting with human growth hormone to encourage production of myelin. Their initial results are promising but more studies are needed.
Research in MS remyelination is on the brink of exciting breakthroughs. Scientists from around the globe are focusing their efforts on new ways to solve this problem. Some are trying to control the inflammatory processes and turn the “off” switches back on. Others are reprogramming cells to become oligodendrocytes. These efforts bring scientists one step closer to giving back to MS patients all that they have lost.