Multiple sclerosis and other myelin diseases: how are damaged nerve fibres repaired?
First published on 21 October 2008
Updated on 29 May 2013
What did the project achieve?
“With our funding from Action Medical Research, we have dramatically increased knowledge of some of the natural healing processes that are involved in repairing damage to the brain and spinal cord,” explains Professor Robin Franklin. “To be more specific, we have revealed important information about how the body repairs damage to a substance called myelin, which normally surrounds our nerves.”
The workings of the brain and spinal cord depend crucially on myelin. We need myelin to feel, move, talk, see and think, for example.
Damage to myelin causes a wide range of physical and mental disabilities in many different conditions that affect large numbers of people – in multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke and spinal cord injuries, for example. Knowing more about how the body repairs damaged myelin, and why this sometimes goes wrong, could lead to new treatments for these often devastating conditions.
“Our discoveries could have a profound bearing on how new therapies of the future will be developed,” says Professor Franklin. “Much more research needs to be done before we can fully understand how the body repairs damaged nerves, but our findings represent a fundamental stepping stone along the way and our work continues in earnest.”
This research was completed on 18 January 2012
Normal functioning of the brain and spinal cord depends crucially on a substance called myelin. Damage to myelin causes a wide range of physical and mental disabilities in many different diseases – in multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, for example. Though natural healing processes can repair myelin, they sometimes fail and are poorly understood. Researchers are investigating these healing processes, with the ultimate aim of developing new treatments that repair damaged myelin and free people from disability.
What's the problem and who does it affect?
The importance of myelin
A substance called myelin is crucial to the normal functioning of the nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. We need myelin to feel, move, talk, see and think properly, for example. It forms an insulating sleeve around nerve fibres, speeding up the movement of electrical signals – or impulses – along those fibres.
In several different conditions, myelin can become damaged or does not form properly. These conditions include multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy and a number of rare inherited diseases of childhood.
Sufferers experience a wide range of potentially devastating disabilities – both physical and mental. People with MS, for example, can suffer vision loss, difficulties walking, tremors and extreme fatigue, amongst other things. Sadly, the disease often progresses, with more severe symptoms in the later stages including difficulties breathing and swallowing. Around 85,000 people have multiple sclerosis in the UK.1
Natural healing processes can repair damage to myelin, but these fail in many diseases, for reasons that remain unclear. We have no treatments that can stimulate the repair of myelin, and a lack of knowledge of the nature of healing processes is hindering attempts to tackle this.
What is the project trying to achieve?
How is myelin normally repaired?
Researchers are trying to find out more about the natural healing processes that can repair damage to myelin. They already know that special stem cells in the brain can change into cells that make new myelin and wrap it around nerve fibres. These stem cells are called oligodendrocyte precursor cells, or OPCs for short. Recent studies show there are two different types of OPCs, but the exact details of how they work remain a mystery.
The researchers are trying to help fill our knowledge gap. They are investigating how OPCs detect damage to myelin, how they repair myelin, how their action is regulated and why these processes sometimes fail. They are finding out how OPCs are distributed throughout the brain and whether this changes with age. They are also studying how the two types of OPCs differ from each other.
What are the researchers' credentials?
|Project Leader||Professor Robin JM Franklin PhD MRCVS FRCPath|
|Location||Department of Veterinary Medicine and MRC Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, University of Cambridge|
|Grant awarded||21 July 2008|
|Start date||1 January 2009|
|End date||18 January 2012|
|Grant code||SP4277, GN1730|
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Professor Robin Franklin is an internationally renowned scientist with extensive knowledge of the processes involved in myelin repair, so far as they are understood. He has an outstanding track record and has published extensively with collaborators from all around the world.
He leads this project with Dr Ragnhildur Karadottir, a widely-respected young scientist who has made important contributions to our knowledge of OPCs. By combining their knowledge and laboratory skills, these two researchers have a unique opportunity to study myelin repair in a way that has never been done before. Dr John Stockley has been recruited to work on this project.
Who stands to benefit from this research and how?
Advancing our knowledge
The researchers hope their investigations will reveal fundamental information about how myelin is normally repaired and why this sometimes goes wrong. This type of work is essential if researchers are to go on to develop the first ever treatments that can stimulate the repair of myelin.
Ultimately, everyone who suffers from a myelin disease may stand to benefit. New treatments that stimulate myelin repair could transform the lives of people with MS and cerebral palsy, for example, and of children with rare and devastating inherited diseases.
Researchers believe that, in theory, it might one day be possible to halt or even reverse the progression of MS. Progressive, debilitating diseases such as MS are devastating for sufferers, have profound knock-on effects for their families and are associated with large costs to the NHS and society. Better treatments are badly needed.
- MS Multiple Sclerosis Society. What is MS? Information on diagnosis, symptoms, treatment, management and sources of support. Third edition. December 2008. http://www.mssociety.org.uk/downloads/What_is_MS_Dec08_web.7b2bc89f.pdf