BY MARK HENDERSON, SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT
AN important breakthrough has been made in the understanding of the nerve damage that causes multiple sclerosis.
Researchers at Imperial College, London, have identified a nerve cell that can repair damage to myelin - the substance that coats healthy neurons but is lost in MS patients and fails to function properly in the later stages of the condition.
Their findings suggest that these cells, known as oligodendrocytes, stop receiving the stimuli that tell them to make new myelin in MS patients.
The team, led by Richard Reynolds, professor of cellular neurobiology, are now investigating which signals are not being sent to the oligodendrocytes, with a view to finding a way of artificially stimulating them into producing myelin.
Myelin is repaired in the early stages of MS but as it advances the patient's cells seem to lose all ability to regenerate the tissue, Professor Reynolds said. His research has shown that oligo-dendrocytes are present in chronic MS lesions but do not operate, indicating that a failure in transmission, not a lack of regenerative cells, is to blame for the condition.
Oligodendrocytes make up about 10 per cent of cells in the nervous system and Professor Reynolds believes that they should have a limitless capacity to repair myelin repeatedly.
The research held out the possibility that "a rational effective therapy
for MS may not be far away", he said.