Sunday, 21 April, 2002, 00:06 GMT 01:06 UK
A commonly used cholesterol lowering drug has been used to reverse the symptom of multiple sclerosis in lab experiments on mice.
The statin drug atorvastatin is prescribed for patients at risk of heart disease because it reduces the levels of potentially harmful cholesterol in the blood.
However, it also has the ability to influence the immune system.
In lab tests it was effective at reversing paralysis in mice with MS-type symptoms.
The research was carried out by a team from Stanford University in the US.
MS is caused by the immune system turning in on itself and attacking the body's own central nervous system.
This results in the progressive destruction of myelin - the tissue that sheathes and protects the nerves.
Without myelin, the nerves cease to function properly, and patients gradually lose the ability to move normally. Eventually they become paralysed.
The researchers worked on mice which had a similar condition to MS.
In this condition the myelin destruction is caused by specialised immune system cells called T lymphocytes.
These cells produce too many cytokines - chemicals which inflame the nervous system and stimulate myelin damage.
The researchers found that the statin drug significantly reduced inflammation.
Not only did the drug reduce the secretion of cytokines that cause inflammation, it stimulated production of another type of cytokine that has the opposite effect.
The researchers believe that statins may also be useful at treating other autoimmune diseases such as insulin-dependent diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Professor John Greenwood, of University College London, who is funded by the MS Society, said the drugs had been shown to have a multiple effect on the immune system.
He has worked closely with scientists from the Institute of Ophthalmology.
He told BBC News Online: "Interestingly, a study conducted by us using a different class of inhibitors, which are able to inhibit some of the same target molecules as statins, have also been shown to limit brain inflammation."
Christine Jones, chief executive of the MS Trust, said: "Of course these are very early findings but it may be that this experimental work will prove useful in terms of therapy for MS.
"Particularly encouraging, according to reported findings, is that this
treatment, based on a cholesterol lowering agent, actually reverses symptoms."
Professor Greenwood's research is one of three studies into the how immune cells enter the brain and attack the myelin coating which are being funded by the MS Society.