Fatty acids that occur naturally in the brain may reduce inflammation associated with multiple sclerosis, a Stanford University study suggests, a finding that may lead to a new approach to treat the disease.
Researchers showed that injecting high doses of the fatty acids, or lipids, into paralyzed mice with MS symptoms reduced inflammation in their brains and allowed them to regain movement within 24 to 36 hours, said Lawrence Steinman, an author of the paper published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Multiple sclerosis is caused by an abnormal immune response that attacks the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The assault stops nerve cells from sending signals, sapping patients’ energy, blurring their vision and slowly robbing them of mobility, balance and coordination. Today’s findings hold promise as a new way to safeguard vulnerable nerves in MS patients, Steinman said.
“There is a very real possibility that we can convert these observations into new drugs that could protect the brains of people with MS against damage,” said Steinman, a professor of neurology at Stanford University in California, in a June 4 telephone interview. “It opens up a whole new medicine cabinet of natural lipid compounds that are quite complex and no one had noticed them before. Certainly, unexpectedly, they have these protective guardian-like qualities.”
The first human tests of the treatment are still about two years away as toxicology tests are done and the researchers raise money, he said.
Current treatments for multiple sclerosis include injectable drugs Bayer AG’s Betaseron, Biogen Idec Inc. (BIIB:US)’s Avonex, Merck KGaA’s Rebif and Copaxone by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (TEVA:US) More recent drugs to reach the market include Tysabri by Biogen and Elan Corp. (ELN:US) and Gilenya, the first oral treatment for the disease sold by Novartis AG. (NOVN)
Steinman, who invented Tysabri, said the fatty acids tune down the inflammatory pathways after the damage to the brain has occurred, while Tysabri and Gilenya help block more harm from happening. Both drugs also come with serious, rare side effects.
Tysabri faced safety questions after being approved by the FDA in 2004. The treatment was suspended in 2005 after some patients developed progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, or PML, an infection in the brain that usually leads to death or severe disability. Tysabri returned to the market in 2006 with a risk-management program for patients who didn’t benefit from other medicines.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency put new safety precautions on the use of Gilenya after a three-month review touched off by the deaths of 15 patients. The regulators said patients with a history of heart disease shouldn’t be given the medicine, which was approved in 2010.
Steinman said the new approach with fatty acids may be safer than Tysabri, which generated $1.1 billion in sales (BIIB:US) last year.
Kate Niazi-Sai, a spokeswoman for Weston, Massachusetts- based Biogen, said she couldn’t comment on the study findings.
“Any new, additional research is good for patients,” she said in a June 4 telephone interview. “We all have the same goal, which is to find a cure for the disease.”
Researchers in the study looked at the fatty acids in the brains of patients with multiple sclerosis and found that those with the disease have fewer fatty acids than those who are healthy, which suggested that lipids serve as a natural anti- inflammatory.
They injected fatty acid molecules into mice to test whether high doses of lipids reduce inflammation and ease symptoms, which they found.
“We hope that if we keep along this track we can help develop drugs based on this to help patients with MS,” Steinman said. “This could be a natural class of anti-inflammatory compounds. Our bodies may have a lot of natural products that are tremendously beneficial that can be mined and harvested into new drugs.”
Stanford University has filed a patent with the researchers as inventors, Steinman said.
The study was sponsored in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
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