Trials of a synthetic form of myelin basic protein, called copolymer I (Copaxone), were successful, leading the FDA to approve the agent for the treatmernt of relapsing-remitting MS. Copolymer I, unlike so many drugs tested for the treatment of MS, has few side effects, and studies indicate that the agent can reduce the relapse rate by almost one third. In addition, patients given copolymer I are more likely to show neurologic improvement than those given a placebo
Investigators are also looking at the possibility of developing an MS vaccine. Myelin-attacking T cells were removed, inactivated, and injected back into animals with experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE). This procedure results in destruction of the immune system cells that were attacking myelin basic protein. In a couple of small trials scientists have tested a similar vaccine in humans. The product was well-tolerated and had no side effects, but the studies were too small to establish efficacy. Patients with progressive forms of MS did not appear to benefit, although relapsing-remitting patients showed some neurologic improvement and had fewer relapses and reduced numbers of lesions in one study. Unfortunately, the benefits did not last beyond two years.
A similar approach, known as peptide therapy, is based on evidence that the body can mount an immune response against the T cells that destroy myelin, but this response is not strong enough to overcome the disease. To induce this response, the investigator scans the myelin-attacking T cells for the myelin-recognizing receptors on the cells' surface. A fragment, or peptide, of those receptors is then injected into the body. The immune system "sees" the injected peptide as a foreign invader and launches an attack on any myelin-destroying T cells that carry the peptide. The injection of portions of T cell receptors may heighten the immune system reaction against the errant T cells much the same way a booster shot heightens immunity to tetanus. Or, peptide therapy may jam the errant cells' receptors, preventing the cells from attacking myelin.
Despite these promising early results, there are some major obstacles to developing vaccine and peptide therapies. Individual patients' T cells vary so much that it may not be possible to develop a standard vaccine or peptide therapy beneficial to all, or even most, MS patients. At this time, each treatment involves extracting cells from each individual patient, purifying the cells, and then growing them in culture before inactivating and chemically altering them. This makes the production of quantities sufficient for therapy extremely time consuming, labor intensive, and expensive. Further studies are necessary to determine whether universal inoculations can be developed to induce suppression of MS patients' overactive immune systems.
Protein antigen feeding is similar to peptide therapy, but is a potentially simpler means to the same end. Whenever we eat, the digestive system breaks each food or substance into its primary "non-antigenic" building blocks, thereby averting a potentially harmful immune attack. So, strange as it may seem, antigens that trigger an immune response when they are injected can encourage immune system tolerance when taken orally. Furthermore, this reaction is directed solely at the specific antigen being fed; wholesale immunosuppression, which can leave the body open to a variety of infections, does not occur. Studies have shown that when rodents with EAE are fed myelin protein antigens, they experience fewer relapses. Data from a small, preliminary trial of antigen feeding in humans found limited suggestion of improvement, but the results were not statistically significant. A multi-center trial is being conducted to determine whether protein antigen feeding is effective.