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The Making of Medicine

MS Discovery Unmasks ‘Bystander’ Cells as Perpetrators

A certain cell type scientists have largely ignored in multiple sclerosis is actually a key driver of the disease, new research from our Alban Gaultier, PhD, and his team shows.

These cells, called oligodendrocyte progenitors, make cells that produce myelin – essential insulation for our nerves. In MS, the body’s immune system begins to attack the myelin. Until now, scientists have believed that the progenitor cells do not efficiently produce myelin-making cells in people with MS.

It turns out the progenitors have a much more complicated role: Gaultier and his team found they actively participate in the immune system’s damaging attacks.

“This cell type is modulating the inflammatory environment,” researcher Anthony Fernández-Castañeda said. “I was very surprised that these progenitor cells, thought to be a bystander during the inflammatory process, are active contributors to neuroinflammation.”

The new discovery suggests that doctors may be able to manipulate the microenvironment inside the brain to avoid neurodegeneration and promote repair. Blocking the effects of the progenitor cells in lab models reduced inflammation and boosted myelin restoration.

“In MS, we have many ways to modulate the initial immune attacks, but we really have no way to promote brain repair,” said Gaultier, of our Department of Neuroscience and our Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG). “To come up with a cure, we have to target both aspects of the pathology.”

Targeting the progenitors would be challenging  because of the complex role they play. But the new discovery recasts what we thought we knew about MS and gives us a better understanding of the disease and its progression. That gives researchers important new avenues to explore.

“It’s going to take a lot more work to translate these findings to any form of therapy,” Gaultier said. “We are shining the light on this cell type that very few people have studied as part of the inflammatory response in the brain. More consideration should be given to the varied roles the progenitor cells play when focusing on finding a cure for MS.”

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