Blocking an enzyme in the brain can help repair damage associated with multiple sclerosis and a range of other neurological disorders, according to scientists at Oregon Health & Science University, who say their discovery could be a “life changer” for millions of people.
Researchers believe their findings have major implications in the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke and other brain disorders caused by demyelination – a process where the sheath surrounding nerve cells in the brain becomes damaged or destroyed. Demyelination disrupts the ability of nerve cells to communicate with each other, and produces a range of motor, sensory and cognitive problems.
“What this means is that we have identified a whole new target for drugs that might promote repair of the damaged brain in any disorder in which demyelination occurs,” said Larry Sherman, PhD, a professor of cell and development biology at Oregon Health & Science University.
Sherman’s lab has been studying MS and other brain disorders for more than 14 years. In 2005, he and his research team discovered that hyaluronic acid, a sugar molecule, accumulates in damaged areas of human and animals brains with demyelinating brain and spinal cord lesions.
Their new study found that breakdown products generated by an enzyme that chews up hyaluronic acid – called a hyaluronidase – contribute to the remyelination failure. By blocking the enzyme and hyaluronidase activity, researchers learned they could promote cell repair in the brains of mice with an MS-like disease. The study was published in the online edition of the Annals of Neurology.
The next step is to develop drugs that can safely be used to target the enzyme in humans.
“The drugs we used in this study could not be used to treat patients because of the serious side effects they might cause,” said Sherman. “If we can block the specific enzyme that is contributing to remyelination failure in the nervous system, it would likely cause few, if any, side effects.”
Sherman cautioned that the discovery does not necessarily signal a cure for MS. Many other factors can contribute to MS and other demyelinating diseases, Sherman says. But discovering the actions of the enzyme — and finding a way to block it — “could at the very least lead to new ways to promote the repair of brain and spinal cord damage either by targeting this enzyme alone or by inhibiting the enzyme in conjunction with other therapies.”
The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Laura Fund for Multiple Sclerosis Research, the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation and the American Heart Association.