More MS news articles for January 2000

Tests successful in animals

UAB thought to be near cure for muscle disease


News staff writer

UAB researchers say they are moving toward a cure for myasthenia gravis, a debilitating disease that robs thousands of people of muscle control.

The vaccine to combat myasthenia gravis could be a model for treatments for multiple scle rosis, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, the researchers say.

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease in which one's own immune system attacks and blocks the nerve signals that control muscle movement. People who have the disease produce deadly antibodies that attack muscles.

Researchers have designed a vaccine to produce antibodies that will fight the deadly ones, meaning a possible cure.

"What we've demonstrated is proof in principle that this technique can be applied to any autoimmune disease," said Dr. J. Edwin Blalock, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lead investigator in the study. Chinese immuno logist Dr. Likang Xu assisted Blalock in the research.

Myasthenia gravis affects about 35,000 to 40,000 people in the United States. About 400 people in Alabama are known to have the disease, which can become life threatening, affecting a person's heart rate and their ability to swallow.

Current treatments involve drugs that lower a person's immune system and only partially control the disease.

So far, tests of the vaccine have succeeded in rats and dogs. Blalock says the university expects to plan clinical trials in humans later this year. He said those trials could begin at UAB in one to three years.

"We'll know whether this will work (in humans) in probably three to five years," Blalock said. "We've been able to put a significant number of dogs which spontaneously develop the disease into remission. One dog has been free of myasthenia gravis for five years and another for three."

If successful, the vaccine could lead to study of other diseases and some allergies, which are also autoimmune diseases. The research team is already using a similar approach to develop a vaccine for multiple sclerosis. The vaccine for myasthenia gravis is the result of seven years of research by Blalock and others. Money for the research comes from the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the National Institutes of Health, the Alabama Myasthenia Gravis Foundation and private donors.

Dr. Leon Charash, chairman of the MDA's Medical Advisory Committee, said Blalock's work was selected for funding among hundreds of other medical research proposals because of its "basic scientific rationale and its potential value."

"Since this is a new concept in treating autoimmune disease, its reverberations are astounding," Charash said.