Medical charities said the find was “astounding news” that would delight the 10,000 Scots with the degenerative illness, while experts from Edinburgh University hailed their discovery as the most important in the field in a decade.
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Scotland has one of the highest rates of MS in the world -- for reasons that are a mystery -- and millions of pounds and many years have been spent trying to find a treatment. Now scientists from Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities say they have pinpointed stem-cell molecules that, when stimulated, work to repair nerve damage in the brain.
The participating scientists believe that revolutionary drugs to trigger the healing process are now less than a decade away.
The potential cure will be trialled on MS patients at the Edinburgh facility built with a £10 million donation from JK Rowling, the Harry Potter creator, whose mother died from MS aged 45.
In MS, the body’s immune system attacks the coverings that protect nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord, causing sufferers to gradually lose control of their muscles. The majority of people who develop the condition are young, and may need decades of help to eat or bathe.
“It’s the most exciting discovery in how to promote repair that I’ve made in the 10 years I’ve been working in this field,” said Professor Charles ffrench-Constant, of Edinburgh University’s MS Society Centre. “It is a significant discovery.”
Speaking yesterday from Shanghai, Professor ffrench-Constant said he hoped that the first generation of drugs would be able to slow down and stop the effects of MS, which becomes progressively debilitating.
“Ultimately, one would like to reverse it, but that’s a much bigger challenge,” he added.
Having identified the target molecule that kick-starts the repair process during experiments on rodents, developing a drug that works on humans will be comparatively straightforward, he said.
“It’s a significant amount of work but it’s something that scientists do quite routinely and have done in many other fields on many other occasions.
“It normally takes at least 10 years to go from an identified target to a drug in the clinic.
“Obviously one hopes that with increasingly effective drug discovery programmes, things will move faster than that.
“In many patients with MS the repair process has failed, so one’s expectation is that even a moderate increase in the amount of repair could have real benefit,” Mr ffrench- Constant added.
“The centre in Edinburgh is delivering. It’s what we were set up to do.
“We have a responsibility to people with MS to discover things that ultimately will lead to cures for them.”
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the MS Society, which funded the research, said the development was “astounding”.
“People with MS will be delighted,” he said. “This opens up the possibility of treatment for people with the progressive form of the illness. We are looking at something that begins to give people back capability that they would have lost. That is very encouraging.”
Gary Williams, 53, a social worker from Aberdeen who has had MS for 24 years, said he was thrilled by the discovery and would like to take part in future drug trials. He now walks with two sticks and is helped by his teenage son.
“I’ve seen a huge deterioration in my co-ordination, motor skills and memory,” he said.
“I’ve tried everything they’ve come up with. I’m looking at a future that’s very uncertain depending on how the illness goes.
“If I have a bit more hope that gives you the boost that gets you out of bed in the morning.
“It might be too late for me, but I don’t have a problem with helping if it helps people behind you.”
‘People diagnosed now are very likely to benefit’
THIS is groundbreaking stuff. There will be people now who have just been diagnosed who are very, very likely to benefit from this discovery.
It offers real hope to the 10,000 people who have MS in Scotland. It is the most common disabling neurological condition in young adults -- the majority of sufferers are diagnosed in their 20s, 30s or 40s.
Your body essentially turns on itself. Your white blood cells recognise the myelin in your central nervous system as an enemy, and try to attack it. From diagnosis, on average someone will be out of paid employment within five years and will need permanent mobility assistance within fifteen years.
If someone is diagnosed with MS in their 20s they may still be going in their 80s, having had to have support for 50 or 60 years.
This is the first time that we’ve got the body’s own stem cells triggered so that they repair myelin themselves.
We hope to be able to translate that laboratory knowledge through into clinical trials and into therapies as quickly as possible. It’s a huge testament to the work of the research organisations at Edinburgh and Cambridge, and the co-operation between the MS Society and its counterpart in the United States.
Simon Gillespie is chief executive of the MS society