Repairing Myelin to Restore Function

There were many talks about some really interesting and promising research at the 2018 ACTRIMS Forum. What’s great is that you can browse the online abstracts (scientific summaries) of the ACTRIMS Forum presentations and posters to see for yourself.

One of the most interesting and exciting talks I heard was presented by the latest winner of the Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research, Dr. Robin Franklin from Cambridge University. This is the first time that the Barancik Prize has been presented at the ACTRIMS Forum, and he gave a great lecture (here’s a video that introduces Dr. Franklin, in case you’re interested).
It’s well known that as we age, the body’s natural healing abilities become less efficient and slower. For example, when an adult gets a scratch, it takes longer to heal than when a child gets a scratch.

Dr. Franklin’s team and collaborators have been looking to understand how aging gradually reduces the brain’s ability to regenerate myelin that has been damaged by MS, and what can be done to counter the challenges presented by the aging process.  

In an unusual experiment, the team surgically joined together young rats and older rats in a way that ensures they share the same circulatory system. I know this description sounds like an old Frankenstein movie, but the setup allowed Dr. Franklin’s team to ask and answer some important questions.

What they found was that the “young” blood enabled the older rat’s brain to heal more like a young rat’s would.
You might think, well how is that going to help me? But what I find so promising about this work is that this young-old model is enabling the team to tease out what is in the young blood that improves healing, and whether whatever it is can be harnessed as a repair mechanism.

After a series of studies, here’s what they found: the young blood sent immune clean-up cells, called macrophages, into the old rat’s brain and cleared away debris from myelin damage. That allowed for certain stem cells that live in the brain to regenerate new myelin and wrap around the nerve fibers that had lost their myelin coating.

These results provided new proof that debris from myelin damage can interfere with the repair of brain lesions. This also showed that one impediment to myelin repair during the later course of MS is an age-related reduction in the efficiency of myelin clean-up by macrophages.

Here’s another thing I found intriguing: they discovered that older rats given a reduced-calorie diet (by fasting every other day) were able to regenerate myelin almost as well as young rats, compared to older rats allowed to eat however much they wanted. Calorie restriction previously has been shown to have positive effects in other areas of repair and anti-aging work, and these experiments suggest a novel mechanism for this phenomenon.

This sounds like the fountain of youth, but everyone knows how hard it is to stick to a diet! So, they’ve also been exploring whether the biological impacts of a restricted diet can be translated into a medicine. And they already uncovered an existing medicine that in some respects does just that in rats. They are making amazing progress that is on its way to being translated to people!

This is what innovation is all about.

Want to learn more? Read our complete summary from ACTRIMS here!
Tags Research, Treatment      4

Douglas Landsman, PhD

Dr. Douglas Landsman is Vice President, Researchh at the National MS Society. He leads the biomedical research and fellowship/faculty award programs, and plays a key role in the International Progressive MS Alliance. He has a long-standing interest in nerve-muscle interaction and developing strategies for promoting nervous system repair after disease or injury.