Using skin samples from people with the disease, they’ve grown new stem cells and for the first time successfully encouraged those cells to become oligodendrocytes. These are the cells that form myelin, a protective covering that insulates the nerves, which is damaged in MS and other neurological conditions.
Until now it had taken around six months to make a fresh supply of oligodendrocytes, meaning research has progressed especially slowly. This advance means scientists can now whip up a batch in half that time. What’s more, they’ve tested them in mice and found that the cells formed new myelin. This means it should soon be possible to create a therapy for MS by transplanting patients’ own stem cells back into the body.
And it’s needed: more than 2 million people in the world have MS, around 100,000 of them in the UK. People are usually diagnosed in their 20s or 30s and it affects three times as many women as men. There’s no cure, and few effective treatments.
Scientists from the Institute hope that their breakthrough could one stop primary progressive multiple sclerosis, the most severe form of the disease, in its tracks. Around 10-15% of sufferers are diagnosed with it, but many people who have relapsing-remitting MS, which includes periods where the illness is remission, will go on to develop the progressive form.
Being able to make oligodendrocytes in this way should also allow scientists to study the progression of the disease, which they hope might allow them to identify it in its earliest stages, allowing them to develop new medications and early interventions. The Chief Executive Officer of NYSCF, Susan L Solomon, says, ‘We are so close to finding new treatments and even cures for MS.’