Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 23:37 GMT 00:37 UK
A drug for MS could help other conditions
A drug first used 30 years ago to treat multiple sclerosis could help a wide variety of similar conditions, claim scientists.
Although their work is still at the very early stages, the team from Harvard Medical School suggest that glatiramer acetate could be useful to doctors treating other autoimmune diseases.
No one is quite sure how glatiramer acetate (GA) helps in multiple sclerosis, although it reduces the number of damaging relapses in the disease.
However, the mechanism by which the body's immune system targets the myelin sheath which protects nerves in the spinal cord is similar to the unwanted immune response which causes inflammation and damage in other conditions.
So GA may be able to reduce the number of attacks in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
In this, the body decides to launch an attack on tissues in the joints.
The Harvard team looked at the way that immune system cells, called T-cells, responded when treated with GA.
The research was reported in New Scientist magazine.
T-cells not treated with GA were compared with those which had been treated with GA.
The body can deliver two types of immune response, Th1 - thought to be the inflammatory reponse behind MS and rheumatoid arthritis, and Th2, which is not associated with those illnesses.
T-cells treated with GA were more likely to start a Th2 response.
Dr Madelaine Devey, a medical advisor to the Arthritis Research Campaign, said that it was an "interesting development".
"This treatment has been around for a very long time, and the mechanisms behind MS are very similar to those of rheumatoid arthritis.
"But nobody really knows how it works."
But she said that in rheumatoid arthritis, the T-cells which sparked all the damage might be long gone by the time the patient reports symptoms to a doctor, so GA might not be an immediately effective treatment.
Another recent study found that GA seemed to protect mice from an autoimmune
disease callled uveoretinitis.