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MS spinal cord change 'could offer new drug target'

MS spinal cord change 'could offer new drug target'
18th February 2015

A newly identified change in the spinal cord that occurs in multiple sclerosis (MS) could enable scientists to develop treatments for the condition.

Scientists at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto believe the change in the spinal cord could be altered to reduce the nerve cell damage that occurs with the disease. This damage is related to an important brain transmitter called glutamate.

The research was led by Dr Fang Liu, senior scientist in CAMH's Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute and professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto.

Their team's focus was on a spinal cord change involving a protein that attaches to a specific cell receptor for the glutamate neurotransmitter. 

It was discovered that this linked receptor-protein complex was present at higher levels in spinal cord tissues of deceased MS patients and in animal models of MS.

Following the discovery, the researchers created a new peptide - a tiny piece of protein - to try to disrupt this change in animal models of MS.

"We found that our peptide disrupted this linkage and led to major improvements in neurological functioning," said Dr Liu.

Significant improvements in motor function were recorded compared to a comparison group, while the nerve damage associated with MS was also mitigated. Neuron death was reduced, while the protective coating of neurons called myelin was preserved. The survival rate of myelin-producing cells was also boosted.

MS involves damage to myelin in the central nervous system, which can harm the underlying nerves and interrupt the transmission of nerve impulses. The location of this damage can determine the symptoms of the condition.

The body's immune response did not appear to be adversely impacted by the treatment, while impairment of essential neuron transmission in the brain - a common side effect for drugs targeting the glutamate system - did not occur.

"Our priority now would be to extend this research and determine how this discovery can be translated into treatment for patients," Dr Liu remarked.

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