These days, it’s rare to hear the word “vaccine” without “COVID-19” preceding it. But, as it turns out, vaccines are making progress on many ends, as a vaccine for multiple sclerosis has yielded impressive results in mouse models.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks its own tissues. MS can be potentially disabling since it primarily impacts the central nervous system — particularly the brain and spinal cord. Those with the disease suffer from immune system attacks that target the myelin (seen as the protective layer) covering their nerve fibers. This, in turn, results in communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. As the disease progresses, it can eventually lead to permanent damage and decaying of the body’s nerves.
Ben Miller, a second-year mathematics student, has seen MS affect his family, and emphasizes that the disease does not impact everybody the same way.
“I’ve watched my uncle go through it for many years now. With treatment, you have to be careful because it can definitely weaken your immune system, which can be a bit counterproductive. Luckily his symptoms are not severe at this point, but I know it affects everyone differently,” says Miller.
BioNTech, the German biotechnology company that joined forces with Pfizer to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, has now employed the same mRNA technique used in the COVID-19 vaccine for the treatment of MS, and it seems to have done them well up to this point.
“Autoimmune diseases are difficult to treat, as it is essentially the body attacking itself. From what I’ve read, there is typically no cure for them and treatments usually focus on alleviating symptoms, trying to slow the progression, and tending to any attacks that may come with it”, says fourth-year health sciences student Asif Ali.
While there are existing treatments, they leave a lot to be desired in terms of side effects for those afflicted. Drug regimens and intense stem cell treatments work to subdue the immune system so that MS can be controlled, but unfortunately this means the patient then becomes susceptible to all kinds of other infections.
And this is exactly what makes BioNTech’s efforts so exciting. Thus far, it has not shown to suppress the immune system, while still being able to delay onset and reduce symptoms.
The potential vaccine uses mRNA so immune cells can withstand nerve cells rather than attack them. This disease typically causes T cells, responsible for regulating immune response, to recognize myelin as extraneous to the body. To counter this issue, the vaccine presents antigens to a regulatory form of T cells known as Tregs. Tregs play a key role in the suppression of immune responses, and once they adapt to tolerating myelin, the inhibition of the damage to neurons via unwanted T cell responses should cease.
Researchers administered the vaccine to mice through nanoparticles and noted that MS symptoms improved and T effector cells, thought to control the onset, were suppressed as well. The effects targeted the tissue, and therefore did not contribute to total suppression of the immune system observed in other MS treatments.
Though the effects have only been seen on mice, the implications of this study are intriguing. mRNA has already been used on a large scale in the COVID-19 vaccine, and now that scientists are seeing uses for it in diseases such as MS, it opens the door for its use in other serious illnesses.