An advance in the understanding of multiple sclerosis that could lead to the development of drugs to reverse the condition was hailed by experts yesterday.
Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh say they have identified a mechanism for activating stem cells that can repair damage to the central nervous system.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive neurological disease which affects an estimated 100,000 people in Britain, causing increasing disability and leaving many wheelchair-bound. The cause is damage to the essential myelin sheaths that protect nerve cells in the brain.
Professor Robin Franklin, director of the MS Society's Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair at Cambridge University, who led the study, said: "Therapies that repair damage are the missing link in treating MS.... we have identified a means by which the brain's own stem cells can be encouraged to undertake this repair, opening up the possibility of a new regenerative medicine for this devastating disease."
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the MS Society, which funded the work, said: "For people with MS this is one of the most exciting developments in recent years."
The research, published in Nature Neuroscience, was conducted in rats and the development of drugs for humans will be many years away.
Professor Charles ffrench-Constant of the Centre for MS Research at the University of Edinburgh, joint author of the study, said: "This discovery could pave the way to find drugs that repair damage caused to layers that protect nerve cells in the brain."