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New direction of stem cell research for Multiple Sclerosis

19 April, 2007

Professor Claude Bernard from the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories (MISCL) has received a $500,000 competitive grant to fund a new direction of research in stem-cell therapies for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) from the MS Society - USA.

The group is aiming to reverse the effects of MS-like diseases by using stem cell-based therapies in conjunction with the manipulation of the thymus, a lymphoid organ that plays a pivotal role in controlling immune responses.

MS attacks the brain and spinal cord and is initiated by a breakdown in immune 'tolerance'. Tolerance mechanisms permit the body to distinguish between foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses and the body's own tissues.

"We are using stem cell-based therapies in combination with the manipulation of the thymus so that we can re-stimulate tolerance to the parts of the brain that are attacked in MS. In this way we are hoping that the body's own immune system will no longer be able to mount a destructive response against brain tissue. These strategies may potentially reverse the effects of MS," Professor Bernard said.

Currently, Professor Bernard and his MISCL colleagues are using novel approaches to reactivate the thymus glands in mouse models that display the two common forms of MS.

"We are working to transplant stem cells in the hope of developing a new thymus that will not reject foreign MS objects. A second approach the group is working towards is to transplant genetically engineered stem cells to make a myelin protein which is a major target of immune attack," he said.

MS, a neurodegenerative condition, exists in several forms and in varying degrees of severity. Currently there is no cure. Although immune therapy is beneficial to some patients, some do not respond to any available therapies. In the majority of cases, patients inexorably advance to a state of chronic disability.

Recently, Professor Bernard and his colleagues have recently found that an MS-like condition in mice can be significantly suppressed by either inhibiting molecules known to cause inflammation or blocking a protein that normally prevents nerves from regenerating.

The MS Society - USA offers limited grants to researchers outside of the U.S. Professor Bernard is one of only three Australian scientists awarded funding from the Society. The Society funds more MS research and provides more services to people with MS than any other MS organisation in the world. It is dedicated to achieving a world free of MS.

Professor Bernard is working with Monash University's Professor Alan Trounson, Professor Richard Boyd, Professor Ban-Hock Toh, Dr. Frank Alderuccio and Dr. Ann Chidgey, who are experts on both the thymus and stem cells.