Scientists are claiming a breakthrough in the treatment of multiple sclerosis after an experimental therapy given to a small group of patients had dramatic results.
The therapy involved extracting white blood cells from the patients which were mixed with proteins and re-infused producing a 50-75 per cent reduction in the body's immune response.
In multiple sclerosis the immune system attacks the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerve fibres causing symptoms ranging from numbness to paralysis.
The new therapy halted the destruction of myelin without affecting the rest of the immune system.
The patients were treated in Hamburg, Germany, using the therapy which is the outcome of 30 years laboratory research. It was tested for safety on nine patients by a joint team from North Western University in Chicago, the University Hospital, Zurich and the University Medical Centre, Hamburg.
With such a small number of patients testing the therapy for safety only, it is impossible to draw conclusions about its effects. But the researchers found the response improved the greater the dose of white blood cells.
Stephen Miller, professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University, said: "The therapy stops autoimmune responses that are already activated and prevents the activation of new autoimmune cells. Our approach leaves the function of the normal immune system intact. That is the Holy Grail."
The researchers need to raise $1.5 million to launch a larger trial of the treatment which has been approved in Switzerland . Earlier studies showed the treatment halted multiple sclerosis in mice.
The researchers say the therapy could be effective in other diseases including diabetes, asthma and peanut allergy.
Commenting on the findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, Professor Paul Matthews, Head of Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, said "much more work" was needed to demonstrate the therapy was effective in multiple sclerosis.
"Nonetheless, it is important to pursue this approach as it still promises a way of harnessing the body's own controls to selectively and more safely stop the disease than is possible now."
Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Head of Biomedical Research, MS Society, said: "Treatments to stop the progression of MS are urgently needed. We eagerly await the results of any future larger clinical trials of this therapy."