Will We Ever be Able to “Heal” MS? A Look at Remyelination

Let’s be honest. If you’re living with or impacted by multiple sclerosis, you’ve likely asked your neurologist, a friend or even yourself, the question – why isn’t there a cure? This is usually followed by the next logical question – when will there be a cure? Are we close?

To date, most MS research has focused on slowing the progression of the disease, or reducing the damage it does to your body. Important? Yes, although it’s certainly not a cure. But a new approach is actually going beyond prevention and exploring whether or not we can reverse the damage caused by MS. It’s called remyelination and it’s pretty darn exciting.

The Challenge

The real problem is that MS is such an elusive disease. All we really know is that the immune system turns on the body, attacking the myelin sheath that protects the nerve cells. As this protective coating becomes progressively more damaged, the nerve cells communicate less and less effectively, resulting in physical and cognitive issues. Unfortunately, we still don’t know what triggers the disease – and it doesn’t help that the symptoms can vary a huge amount from person to person, either.

Until now, research into MS has focussed on reducing the damage the disease causes, and researchers have made great strides in recent years with the development of disease-modifying therapies that can slow or delay the impact of the disease.

Reversing the Damage in MS

Spurred on by these breakthroughs, attention is now shifting to the idea of actually reversing the effects of damage to the myelin nerve sheath, rather than just delaying it. Researchers used to think that once myelin was damaged, that was it. However, we now know that the cells that make myelin – snappily named ‘oligodendrocytes’ – can also repair myelin in the early stages of MS, but as the disease progresses this repair mechanism slows down.

Understanding why this happens means researchers could potentially create the ideal conditions for myelin repair or ‘remyelination’ to occur, essentially triggering the body to heal itself. Consequently, remyelination is big news in MS research right now, with a lot of studies looking at the different factors that influence this process.

Stem Cells and Myelin Repair

Full disclosure – we know that everyone has his or her own opinion on stem cell research. Some of you may support it, others may not, and we fully respect both sides of the coin. Either way, the fact remains that stem cell research is in fact happening, and there are some interesting developments to report.

A stem cell is one that has yet to decide what it’s going to become. As such they are plentiful in embryos, before the cells are programmed to turn into a liver cell, or a heart cell, or a nerve cell, or whatever. Researchers have developed ways to trigger these embryonic stem cells to make myelin-producing oligodendrocytes in the laboratory, and are now looking at how stem cells present in adults could be stimulated to do the same thing.

A number of preclinical studies have also focussed on so-called growth factors – substances produced by stem cells, which appear to trigger cell repair. One day, it may even be possible to transplant stem cells, nerve cells or myelin-forming cells into the brain, but research is still in the very early stages.

Looking to the future

While we still have no definitive answers, one thing’s for sure: research into MS is advancing at an incredible rate, with more treatment approaches in the pipeline than ever before. With so many experts working to unlock the mystery of remyelination, it’s hopefully only a matter of time before we find the key to healing the central nervous system, which could someday mean a cure for MS.

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