Multiple sclerosis is a disease where the immune system attacks and damages the nerves in the brain, and leads to loss of myelin on the nerves fibres that conduct electrical waves to signal muscles to act or sensations to be felt. This process is known as demyelination. The aim of many therapies, is to stop this immune mediated demyelination. It is now widely appreciated that the immune system has cells that can regulate or suppress these damaging immune processes. Our group was one of the first to appreciate these cells exist and can control immune inflammation, restoring the immune system to tolerance.
We are particularly interested in how to promote these regulatory/suppressor T cells, so they specifically turn off demyelination. We are developing ways to grow these cells so they will only turn off the demyelinating immune response, not the normal immune response to infections. We have identified that the growth of these cells requires natural growth factors, called cytokines. Cytokines include the interferons that are currently used to treat MS. We have identified two other cytokines that may promote specific regulatory cells, that turn off demyelination. One, we have shown, activates the T regulatory cells in culture as well as in the body, using animal models of MS. We plan to expand this work to develop new ways of controlling MS
Why the immune system has sudden attacks followed by periods where patients have no symptoms remains a mystery. What we do know is that our bodies have a ‘generic’ set of immune cells. These are activated under the right conditions to become MS-specific suppressor cells, regulating the cells that cause inflammation and tissue damage during MS.
The potential is for greater levels of these suppressor cells will reduce clinical symptoms for people with MS to suppress relapses. Dr Hodgkinson and her team are responsible for the discovery of these suppressor cells that can control the damaging immune response during MS.
She has reason to be optimistic. Earlier animal studies modelling MS scarring showed that injections of a specific signalling molecule called interleukin-5, could promote these MS-specific suppressor cells to give a milder form of the disease, rapid recovery and prevention of further myelin damage.
Dr Hodgkinson’s focus is now to develop ways to promote the production and activity of these suppressor cells by either growing them in a laboratory under optimal conditions or by administering molecules like interleukin-5 to promote their growth in the body.
These studies will provide the information to determine the value of activating the MS-specific immune cells that could turn off the MS autoimmune process.
Dr Suzanne Hodgkinson’s group discovered that within the immune system there are cells that can control immune inflammation and prevent the tissue injury such as occurs in attacks of MS. These cells are called regulatory T cells, which can control any immune response and can also be activated to only control damaging immune responses. We propose to develop ways to promote these cells to stop relapses in MS.
Updated: 06 January, 2008