Hope has been raised for multiple sclerosis patients as researchers claim to have found a way to combat symptoms of the condition.
Training the body to fight glandular fever could provide the key for treating the debilitating condition which strikes millions, according to research.
Scientists improved the symptoms of 70 per cent of MS sufferers in a small trial by training their immune cells to battle the common Epstein-Barr virus.
The virus causes glandular fever – known in the US as mono. It is found in almost all people with multiple sclerosis and has long been thought to cause it.
Training the immune system to battle the common Epstein-Barr virus (pictured), which causes glandular fever and may be responsible for triggering multiple sclerosis, could improve symptoms in people with multiple sclerosis, Australian researchers have found
Experts at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Queensland uncovered the effects of training immune cells in MS patients.
In most people with the Epstein-Barr virus, it lies dormant in their body, unless it is active, which is when it causes glandular fever.
But among some people the cells infected by the virus – which is part of the herpes family and infects more than 90 per cent of people – can travel to the brain or spine.
There, it can break down the fatty, protective coating around nerves called myelin, causing nerve damage and leading to the debilitating symptoms of MS.
The Australian researchers removed immune cells from MS patients’ bodies, trained them to fight of the Epstein-Barr virus, then injected them back into the blood.
After this, seven of the 10 patients said signs of their MS improved – they claimed to have increased energy, better concentration, and improved vision and balance.
WHAT IS MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS?
Multiple sclerosis, known as MS, is a condition in which the immune system attacks the body and causes nerve damage to the brain and spinal cord.
It is an incurable, lifelong condition which ranges from producing fairly mild symptoms to causing severe disability.
Around 100,000 people are thought to be diagnosed with MS in the UK, and around 2.3 million worldwide.
It is more than twice as common in women as it is in men and is usually diagnosed in their 20s and 30s.
Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty walking, vision problems, bladder problems, numbness or tingling, muscle stiffness and spasms, problems with balance and co-ordination, and problems with thinking, learning and planning.
The majority of sufferers will have episodes of symptoms which go away and come back, while some have ones which get gradually worse over time.
Symptoms can be managed with medication and therapy, but the condition shortens the average life expectancy by around five to 10 years.
Source: NHS Choices
And in four of them there were lower levels of a protein commonly found in MS patients, suggesting a measurable improvement in the disease.
Nobody had serious side effects in the study, which was a larger repeat of one in 2013, in which a 42-year-old man had the same therapy and said he felt less tired, suffered fewer painful leg spasms and was able to do his job better.
The researchers now want to do an even larger study including people being given a placebo to measure how well the therapy actually works.
The findings add more evidence to the theory of Epstein-Barr being a potential cause of multiple sclerosis, MS Research Australia said.
But it is still not clear why only a small majority of people with the very common virus develop the degenerative nerve disease.
Genetic differences may affect how well people’s immune systems can fight off the virus, scientists suggest.
Their research, reported by the New Scientist, was published in the journal JCI Insight.
Charities estimate there are around 100,000 MS sufferers in the UK, while the figure is more than four times higher in the US.
The disease, which worsens over time, occurs when the immune system mistakes myelin for a foreign body and attacks it.
This damages and disrupts signalling between the brain and spinal cord, either partially or completely.
It can lead to vision and balance problems, dizziness, fatigue, stiffness and spasms. The disease progressively gets worse.
It is not yet known whether the Epstein-Barr virus directly trigger multiple sclerosis but the two have been linked for years.
Practically all people with multiple sclerosis have had an Epstein-Barr infection at some point in their lives, and the virus puts people at a 5.5 times higher risk of developing MS, according to studies.
Scientists suggest differences in how people’s immune systems deal with the virus, or the ability of the virus to interact with DNA could be to blame for the link.