Monday, January 3, 2000 LA Times
By THOMAS H. MAUGH II
Working with rats, Alabama researchers have developed a vaccine that may eventually be used for treating and preventing myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness in about 36,000 Americans. The approach might also be useful against a variety of other autoimmune diseases, including diabetes, arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis.
Autoimmune diseases occur when a person's own immune system begins attacking parts of the body. In myasthenia gravis, immune-system cells attack special docking sites on muscle cells that normally receive and process nerve signals that trigger muscle activity. Victims have a fluctuating muscle weakness, and the disorder can be life-threatening if it severely affects breathing or swallowing. Current treatments involve drugs that suppress the immune system, plasmapheresis to remove harmful antibodies from the blood, and medications that prolong the effects of chemicals that transmit nerve signals.
Immunologist J. Edwin Blalock and his colleagues at the University of Alabama at Birmingham developed molecules that are similar to key parts of immune-system cells involved in attacking the docking sites. They vaccinated rats with chemicals, then attempted to give them myasthenia gravis.
The team reports in the January issue of the FASEB Journal that half
the vaccinated rats did not develop myasthenia gravis and the rest had
only unusually mild symptoms. All of the control animals given the disease
developed it. In work that has not yet been published, Blalock also found
that the vaccine can reduce symptoms, and even induce remissions, in rats
and dogs that have already developed myasthenia gravis.