Oregon researchers have identified two types of white blood cells that are thought to cause multiple sclerosis by attacking nerve tissue. The finding is considered a crucial step toward treating the disease. In a study published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Halina Offner and her colleagues at the Oregon Health Sciences University reported that they isolated the white blood cells, or lymphocytes, that appear to attack myelin, a protein that covers and protects nerve cells. The loss of myelin is the key event in the progression of multiple sclerosis, which affects as many as 250,000 Americans.
Offner said the research "closes the loop" by verifying earlier animal studies that showed multiple sclerosis could be caused by the action of these lymphocytes.
Dr. Abe Eastwood, director of research and grant programs at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said it is still unknown what triggers the lymphocyte attack on the myelin. He also said other studies have determined that still other lymphocytes also attack the myelin.
Offner said a peptide, or compound, that blocks the destruction caused by the lymphocytes is now being tested on 11 MS patients in Oregon. She said it is too early to tell whether the treatment will control or cure the disease. "We don't have a miracle, but it looks promising," said Offner. "All of the patients are stable. We haven't seen any side effects."