Since the first diagnosed case of the autoimmune disease known as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 1849, scientists have worked tirelessly in search of a cure, but it wasn’t until microbiologist Stephen Miller and bioengineer Lonnie Shea began working together—over 160 years after that first MS diagnosis—that a scientific breakthrough leading to a successful treatment was finally reached.
Approximately 2.1 million individuals in the world suffer from Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that damages the myelin sheaths that cover and protect nerve cells found in the brain, optic nerve, and spinal cord and can result in any number of horrifying symptoms, such as: muscle spasms, numbness, inability to move arms or legs, stool and urine leakage, blindness, memory loss, hearing loss, slurred speech, and trouble swallowing, to name a few.
Autoimmune disorders such as MS occur when a type of white blood cell within the body (called T-cells) mistake the body’s own tissues for a foreign substance and attack them. Currently, the treatments offered to patients suffering from autoimmune diseases involve the use of medications which suppress the immune system entirely. These drugs “leave patients susceptible to infections and increase their risk of cancer as the immune system’s normal ability to identify and destroy aberrant cells within the body is compromised”.
Obviously, this form of treatment is not ideal and many patients with MS choose to opt out of the current treatment because of these dangerous side effects.
It is due to this lack of current options for sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis that Miller and Shea, two professors at Northwestern University, decided to join forces in researching the disease after receiving funding from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). The two scientists, along with a team of Australian and Californian researchers, were commissioned “to come up with a novel way of repressing only the part of the immune system that causes autoimmune disorders while leaving the rest of the system intact”.
And they have succeeded.
The details of this innovative and truly awe-inspiring scientific development were published this past Sunday, November 18th, in Nature Biotechnology, an online scientific journal. Using advanced nanotechnology, the scientists were able to create a biodegradable nanoparticle that “tricks the immune system into stopping its attack on myelin”, the sheaths surrounding nerve cells. When the nanoparticles were attached to myelin antigens and injected into lab mice during an experiment conducted by Miller and Shea, the immune system was effectively reset to normal and no longer viewed the myelin as a foreign invader in the body.
The best part about this breakthrough?
According to Stephen Miller: “The beauty of this new technology is it can be used in many immune-related diseases. We simply change the antigen that’s delivered.” Among these “many” autoimmune diseases, Diabetes Type 1, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and even allergies and asthma are speculated to benefit–and hopefully be cured eventually–by this treatment.
Your turn, Nation:
How excited are you about this breakthrough?
Do you know anyone with an autoimmune disease and, if so, are they considering seeking this form of treatment?