Recently, there have been significant developments toward the cure for multiple sclerosis (MS). One of the same companies that created a promising vaccine for COVID-19 has also had success with a vaccine for MS. Here’s what we know so far about the progress of the multiple sclerosis vaccine.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that causes the body’s immune response to attack the central nervous system. In other words, MS impacts everything from the body’s nerves to the spinal cord and even the brain. MS is categorized with other autoimmune diseases, but it is also a neurological disorder because the central nervous system is the target of the inflammatory immune response.
With MS, the immune system attacks something called myelin, which is meant to protect the nerve cells. When an individual’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself, it can cause debilitating symptoms. Though MS affects individuals differently, some common symptoms include:
- Difficulty with balance
- Tingling or numbness
- Inflammation and pain
- Muscle weakness
Anybody can develop MS, but it seems to be more common in certain populations. Additionally, people with MS frequently start feeling symptoms in their early adult years, from around ages 20 to 40.
Medical professionals know more about MS now than they did when they first defined the diagnostic criteria, but the truth is that this is an incredibly complex and challenging disease to address. In recent years, researchers have discovered that MS usually follows one of four different paths in patients. The four paths are characterized by the National MS Society as:
- Clinically isolated syndrome—This occurs when people have an episode of inflammation and disruption of the central nervous system, but they have not yet been diagnosed with MS. In these cases, some people do not end up actually developing MS in its entirety and instead have these “isolated” incidents.
- Relapsing remitting—This type of MS is considered to be the most common, and it comes with ups and downs. Most people with relapsing remitting MS have periods of remission or recovery in which they have few to no symptoms. However, the condition “relapses” when people experience new or worsening neurological symptoms.
- Secondary progressive—With this type, people begin by experiencing the ups and downs like stated above. Then, over time, there is a steady increase in debilitating symptoms without the hope of total remission.
- Primary progressive—Unlike with the course of secondary progressive MS, primary progressive is characterized by a rise in symptoms from the very start without any moments of remission.
Right now, people with MS have some options to treat or manage their symptoms. There is no known cure for this disorder. However, there is some hope with the developments in the MS vaccine. The goal with this vaccine is that it could stop the immune system from attacking itself and, therefore, put an end to the disorder’s chronic symptoms.
How Does the Multiple Sclerosis Vaccine Work?
Autoimmune disorders often respond well to medication or treatments that suppress the immune system’s response. These immunosuppressive treatments have been successful in helping people with MS to live a relatively happy, healthy life.
However, there are dangers with immunosuppressants, which brings a substantial threat to immunocompromised people, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, immunosuppressants help the immune system to relax enough so that it doesn’t attack itself. But this also means that the immune system might not have an appropriate response to bacteria or viruses that invade the body.
Researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine for multiple sclerosis that does not weaken the immune system, without much success in years past. Fittingly, the production of the COVID-19 vaccine has inspired a solution for this.
The COVID-19 vaccines that are currently approved for emergency use do not use a live strain of the virus—rather, they use mRNA sequencing to help the body build protection against the potential threat of the virus. The design of this vaccine is to get the immune system to understand the threat of the novel coronavirus and create a defense system against it.
Similarly, the MS vaccine would use mRNA technology. Though MS is not a virus the way that COVID-19 is, the immune system in people with MS mistakes myelin for a threat that needs to be taken out as it would with an illness. The solution to this would be to help the immune system recognize that it doesn’t actually need to attack the central nervous system and instead has other things to protect against.
Thus, the same company that helped pioneer the first of the COVID-19 vaccines has partnered with experts at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz to figure out if this mRNA technology from the COVID-19 vaccine would also work to treat MS.
Together, these researchers recently announced that there have been promising results from the mRNA MS vaccine clinical trials done in mouse models. The mice have a condition that mirrors the way MS symptoms show up in humans. The vaccine is meant to address this experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis in the mice by encouraging the body to create autoantigens that defend against MS symptoms.
In the clinical trials with the mouse models, this noninflammatory mRNA vaccine was more effective than the placebo in stopping symptoms of MS. These results are extremely promising for potential lifelong treatment for people with MS. Particularly of note, the biggest benefit of this vaccine is that it does not leave the immune system vulnerable. Additionally, mRNA vaccines are able to be produced quickly, which means that getting this treatment might not be too far out of reach.
What Does the Future Look Like for People with MS?
The mRNA approach brings a lot of possibilities for people with MS because it offers the opportunity for treating the symptoms of the disorder without bringing the risk of weakening the immune system. This vaccine also has the potential to help people with progressive MS to bring their worsening symptoms to a halt.
Of course, there is a lot more work to do before any MS vaccine will be approved for use in people with MS. Ultimately, these advances in the MS vaccine give a glimmer of hope to people who live with this disorder that they can one day have a symptom-free future.
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