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Resetting Immune Systems Could Cure MS and Other Autoimmune Diseases

Update Date: Jun 05, 2013 04:31 PM EDT

A new experimental therapy that teaches the body to recognize and ignore its own nerve tissue appears to be safe and effective in treating multiple sclerosis, according to a new study.

The study conducted at Northwestern University found the treatment successfully resets the immune system of MS patients and significantly reduced patients' immune systems' reactivity to myelin by 50 to 75 percent.

People with MS have immune systems that attack and destroy myelin, the white insulating material that forms around spinal cord, brain and eye nerves to speed up transmissions along these cells to the brain.  Without myelin, signaling in the cells don't work as well, resulting in a range of symptoms from clumsiness to numbness to paralysis to emotional changes or blindness.

Researchers said that new treatment aims to build up the body's tolerance for its own cells to stop the immune system from attacking them. In the study, which involved nine participants, researchers used MS patients' own specially processed white blood cells to deliver billions of myelin antigens into their bodies. The injected myelin antigens are supposed to help patients' immune systems recognize myelin as harmless and develop tolerance to them. Researchers said the discovery is exciting because current MS therapies suppress the entire immune system, and often make patients more susceptible to everyday infections and higher rates of cancer.

"The therapy stops autoimmune responses that are already activated and prevents the activation of new autoimmune cells," lead researcher Stephen Miller, a professor of Microbiology-Immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement. "Our approach leaves the function of the normal immune system intact. That's the holy grail."

While the study was unable to definitely conclude that the treatment prevents the progression of MS, researchers found evidence of target chances in the patients' immune response.  The study showed that patients who received the highest dose of white blood cells had the greatest reduction in myelin reactivity.

Researchers said if the treatment passes other clinical trials, "it could be modified to treat many different autoimmune diseases just by switching out" substances that trigger other diseases, according to USA Today. Researchers said the approach could theoretically work for type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies and even heart disease.

"This is important work," Dr. Lawrence Steinman, a professor of neurology at Stanford University who was not involved with the study, told HealthDay.

"Very few investigators are trying therapies in humans aimed at simply turning off unwanted immune responses and leaving the rest of the immune system intact to fight infections -- to do surveillance against cancer," Steinman said.

"The early results show encouragement," he added.

The findings are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

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