Tue, Jun 4 2002 5:57 PM AEST
The discovery of a protein that may lead to a new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) by protecting nerve cells from attack by the immune system has been announced by an Australian research team.
The discovery, published in the international medical journal Nature Medicine at the weekend, offers a new approach to managing the crippling auto-immune disease.
MS, which affects one in 1,000 people worldwide, is more common in women and typically begins between the ages of 20 and 40.
Its most famous victims include the British cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, who died in 1987 aged only 42 and the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine.
It causes the covering that insulates nerve fibres in the central nervous system to deteriorate and results in a slowing down or blockage of messages from the nerves to the brain.
It is characterised by recurrent and destructive inflammation of nerves in the brain and spinal cord, which worsens over time.
A research team from the University of Melbourne, led by MS expert Doctor Trevor Kilpatrick, found the administration of a naturally occurring protein, or cytokine, reversed the loss of nerve cells in mice with the animal form of MS.
The cytokine involved is Leukaemia Inhibitory Factor (LIF), which was first purified by Australian researchers in 1987.
"We were able to show was that LIF reduced the severity of the clinical disease in animals," Dr Kilpatrick said.
"It became clear that the LIF wasn't acting on the immune cells, it was actually keeping cells within the brain alive... and they're cells which normally die off in MS."
Dr Kilpatrick's research complements that of Austrian researchers, published simultaneously with his.
Scientists in the University of Wurtzberg in Austria have discovered a sister component to LIF, known as CNTF, which also appears to play a role in protecting nerve cells.
Dr Kilpatrick says as well as providing an insight into the mechanism by which neurons were destroyed in MS, the combined research showed that agents like LIF and CNTF could be used to prevent progressive disability in MS.
"I don't think we're talking about a cure but one component of a complex disease," he said.
"We would see that the therapies that we're advocating would be potentially given in combination with immune therapy.
"That would be the sensitive approach in the future to thinking how an agent such as LIF might fit in treatment protocols for MS."
Dr Kilpatrick says human trials are ready to go ahead but timing depends
on Amrad, a Melbourne biotech company that holds the commercial rights
to the research.
© 2002 Australian Broadcasting Corporation