Scientists have developed a way of modifying a microscopic particle which could offer a new approach to tackling major diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, asthma and food allergies.
When primed, the nanoparticle can trick the immune system into halting its attack on the body which is a characteristic of these diseases.
Instead of taking a drug that suppresses the entire immune system, making sufferers more susceptible to infections and cancer, patients may in future take the nanoparticle treatment which can selectively inhibit the part of the immune system responsible for the disease.
Researchers from Northwestern University in the US, funded by the National Institutes for Health, used the technique to block the progression of multiple sclerosis in mice. In MS, the immune system attacks the protective myelin sheath that surrounds the nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms ranging from numbness to paralysis.
They injected nanoparticles attached to myelin antigens – proteins to stop the immune system from recognising the myelin sheath as an alien invader - which reset the immune system to normal and halted the attack.
Stephen Miller , professor of microbiology and an author of the study published in Nature Biotechnology, said: “This is a highly significant breakthrough. The beauty of this new technology is it can be used in many immune-related diseases. We simply change the antigen that is delivered.”
“We administered these particles to animals who have a disease very similar to relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis and stopped it in its tracks. We prevented any future relapses for up to 100 days, which is the equivalent of the several years in the life of an MS patient.
The nanoparticles have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the US for a different use and could be easily manufactured making the treatment cheaper than other approaches.
The researchers have shown in their lab that the treatment can also induce protection against other auto-immune disease, such as Type 1 diabetes and certain food allergies. It may also be used by transplant patients to reduce problems of rejection by training the immune system not to perceive the transplanted organ as alien.