Tuesday, 11 March, 2003, 00:00 GMT
Cholesterol-lowering drugs could tackle the development of multiple sclerosis at a very early stage, scientists have found.
Statins, usually given to patients with heart disease, could one day be given to MS patients - if the findings of laboratory and animal tests are confirmed in human trials.
MS is caused by the immune system turning in on itself and attacking the body's own central nervous system.
This happens because immune cells called T lymphocytes produce too many cytokines, chemicals which inflame the nervous system.
This triggers the activation of other immune cells, called macrophages, which leads to 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.
This latest research, by scientists at the Institute of Ophthalmology and University College London found that statins prevent the damaging lymphocytes accumulating in the brain in the first place by blocking their pathway in.
Their research focussed on the blood-brain barrier and a signalling molecule called Rho GTPase.
The lymphocytes, or white blood cells, have to cross the barrier to get into the brain.
In order for them to get through, Rho GTPase, which is present in the cells of the brain's blood vessels, has to be switched on.
The research team found statins blocked the molecules from doing their job.
This prevents the lymphocytes accumulating in the brain and therefore damaging the myelin sheath and the nerves.
It was already known that statins could alter the state of the cytokines, making them "passive" instead of "aggressive".
Professor John Greenwood, one of the scientists leading the research, told BBC News Online: "It's fair to say this could alleviate and attenuate disease progression."
He added: "More than 85,000 people in the UK suffer from MS and at present there is no effective treatment or cure.
"These new results provide direct evidence that statins, which are a well tolerated and widely used class of drug, may inhibit a crucial stage in the development of inflammatory lesions in the brain.
"They could thus be of significant benefit in the treatment of patients suffering from MS."
But he was reluctant to say statins could be a cure for MS.
"I think the only true cure will be when we discover what causes MS," he said.
Further studies will now take place.
Mike O'Donovan, chief executive of the MS Society, which partly funded the research, told BBC News Online: "These encouraging results in a model of MS show that statins might play an important role in the control and treatment of the disease.
"We hope it will not be too long before trials involving patients can be conducted."
The research is published in the FASEB (Federation of American Societies
for Experimental Biology) journal.
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