NEW treatments to repair the damage in the brain caused by multiple sclerosis (MS) could now be developed thanks to Scottish research.
A study by Edinburgh University found a key mechanism that allows the protective layer around nerves, which is damaged in patients with MS, to regenerate and potentially reduce disability.
The researchers said the findings offered “exciting” new opportunities to create therapies to treat the debilitating condition.
Campaigners said they were “delighted” by the results in the search for desperately needed treatments for MS.
Around 100,000 people in the UK are affected by MS, including more than 10,000 in Scotland, which is believed to have one of the highest rates of the condition in the world.
The latest study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, focused on how cells in the brain are able to regenerate protective sheaths around nerve fibres.
These sheaths, made up of a substance called myelin, are critical for the quick transmission of nerve signals to control vision, sensation, movement and speech.
But in patients with MS, this protective layer breaks down, causing problems with these functions, often leaving sufferers severely disabled, while others may have attacks which come and go.
Along with colleagues at Cambridge University, the Edinburgh team used mice to discover that special immune cells, called M2 macrophages, helped to trigger the regeneration of myelin by stimulating cells known as oligodendrocytes.
In mice without M2 macrophages, this process of “remyelination” was dramatically reduced.
In their studies in both mice and brain tissue from patients with MS, they discovered that these immune cells were found at higher levels when the regeneration of myelin was working well.
They also found that the immune cells stimulated the oligodendrocytes to make the myelin by releasing a protein called activin-A in the tissue.
The researchers concluded: “Studying M2 macrophages and activin-A might offer exciting new opportunities for development of regenerative therapies for MS.
“Therapies developed from these findings may support regeneration and restore lost functions in people with MS.”
They said that further studies should look at finding out how activin-A works and how safe and effective new treatments may be in human patients.
Dr Veronique Miron, from Edinburgh University’s Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said: “In MS patients, the protective layer surrounding nerve fibres is stripped away and the nerves are exposed and damaged.
“This study could help find new drug targets to enhance myelin regeneration and help to restore lost function in patients with multiple sclerosis.”