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New hope for multiple sclerosis sufferers as scientists ‘reverse symptoms’ with cells transplant

Experts are still unsure exactly what triggers MS, which affects more than 130,000 people in the UK

Emily Atkinson
Friday 15 April 2022 09:32 BST
Multiple sclerosis: Study finds Epstein-Barr virus triggers autoimmune disease
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A groundbreaking study has claimed that immune cells against glandular fever have the potential to halt or even reverse symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). US scientists conducted a trial where patients with MS were implanted with T-cells that help the body fight the virus that causes glandular fever.

Brain scans suggested the progression of the condition was slowed down or even reversed in some patients, the study claims. Those who saw results also had “sustained disability improvement,” such as being able to walk with less pain.

The T-cells were extracted from people who had recovered from Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes glandular fever and has been recognised as a possible cause of MS.

The researchers admitted the study was small and did not rule out the placebo effect. However, the results could mark a major advancement in experts’ understanding of MS, which is currently incurable.

MS is a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord as a result of the coating that protects nerves being damaged. This causes a range of symptoms including fatigue, blurred vision and problems with movement and feeling.

The condition is lifelong once diagnosed, but specialist treatments can help to manage the condition and its symptoms. Experts are still unsure about exactly what triggers the condition that affects more than 130,000 people in the UK.

According to the MS Society, people are most likely to find out they have MS in their thirties, forties and fifties in Britain, and the condition affects almost three times as many women as men.

The revelation follows a major study from Harvard University of 1 million soldiers which revealed that EBV has the potential to be the leading cause of MS, with patients of the virus 32 times more likely to develop the condition.

The groundbreaking T-cell therapy has been developed by US firm Atara Biotherapeutics. Its scientists extracted the immune cells known as ATA188, found in people who have fought off EBV, and administered them to the MS patients via injection.

The American immunotherapy company trialled the treatment on an initial 24 MS patients for a year in 2017. Patients recruited from across the US and Australia were offered different doses of the treatment to assess its effects.

Of the 24 participants who were drafted in to take part in the study, 18 continued the trial for up to more than three years — seven of which already showed signs of improvement. Twenty of those that took part saw their condition improve or stabilise after a year. And after three years, a further nine people also had improvements, according to brain scans.

Professor Mark Freedman, a neurologist at the University of Ottawa who was not involved in the trial, said a natural reversal in progressive MS is incredibly rare. He suggested the Atara trialled therapy was behind the outcomes.

“When a patient reaches a certain level of advanced disability, it is rare for them to naturally revert, and any improvement that is sustained would not be expected from the natural history of the disease,” he said.

Others suggested further research is needed as Atara’s initial trial did not test against a control variable. Clare Walton, head of research at the MS Society, told New Scientist: “It’s encouraging that they’ve seen improvements in MTR. But we’ve seen treatments look promising at phase one or even at phase two, but then when you do the large randomised trials they don’t show any outcome.”

Atara is conducting a phase two trial on 80 people, which is the next stage in the development of the potential treatment. Dr Manher Joshi, chief medical officer at Atara, said: “There is growing robust evidence that EBV-infected B cells and plasma cells play a critical role in the pathogenesis of multiple sclerosis.

“These data on progressive MS, the population with highest unmet need, underscore the potential to halt or reverse disability progression by precisely targeting what may be a root cause of MS.”

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