The disease, which affects about 85,000 people in the UK, causes wasting of the muscles and progressive paralysis as the myelin sheath surrounding nerve cells is destroyed. The body's immune system perceives the myelin as foreign, for reasons that are not understood, and attacks it as it would attack an invading infection.
Research by Professor David Wraith of the department of pathology and microbiology at the University of Bristol, using blood taken from MS sufferers, has shown that the auto-immune response that causes the damage can be switched off.
"We have found we can take the T-cells that are part of the body's immune system and re-educate them so they stop misbehaving," Professor Wraith said. "Potentially this is very important. Existing treatments are non- specific and tend to have side effects."
The research, to be presented at a symposium on "Regulating the Immune Response" at the United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy's and St Thomas's Hospitals in London tomorrow, is backed by the biotechnology company, Peptide Therapeutics, with funding from the Multiple Sclerosis Society, in a joint venture which guarantees the society a share of the royalties should the treatment prove effective. It is hoped that clinical trials will begin in 18 months.
Peter Cardy, chief executive of the MS society, said: "It is the first time we have entered into a collaboration of this kind, which has the potential to generate funds to be re-invested in supporting people with MS."
In multiple sclerosis, the T-cells in the immune system recognise specific regions of the protein sequence in the myelin against which they launch their attack. Professor Wraith and his team have shown that by challenging the T-cells with peptides that correspond to these regions the attack can be halted.
When given orally the results were disappointing, probably because the drug was broken down in the gut, but when administered as a nasal spray the suppression of immune response was highly promising.