Important progress made in research on treatment for MS and Alzheimer’s
For the first time, in experimental animal models for MS, researchers at Maastricht University (UM) and Hasselt University (UHasselt) have succeeded in restoring the substance myelin, which is degraded by the disease. The restorative effect is produced by supressing the action of specific proteins that are crucial to the reduction in myelin production. In Maastricht, scientists are studying whether the suppression of the same enzymes can also improve cognition in Alzheimer’s patients. To achieve this, the researchers are looking at a drug that has already been on the market for a long time, but which is currently prescribed to people with serious COPD.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease which damages the protective and insulating sheath around nerves in the central nervous system – the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. This can result in problems with walking, vision and sense of touch. Although the cause of MS is still unknown, a few pieces of the jigsaw have been found. For one thing, we know that the substance myelin plays a key role in the disease. Myelin forms an insulating sheath around the nerves in the central nervous system, which ensures they transmit impulses quickly and efficiently. In MS sufferers, the immune system has an abnormal response to myelin, so it degrades, and the nerves don’t transmit impulses properly. ‘For the first time we have now succeeded in stimulating the replenishment of myelin in experimental animal models for MS,’ says researcher Dr Tim Vanmierlo of Hasselt University. ‘We do this by supressing the action of specific proteins that are crucial to the reduction in myelin production. The results of this research may be an important step in the search for a treatment for progressive MS.’
Previous research at Maastricht University (UM) by Professor Jos Prickaerts has already shown that the same proteins that are responsible for a reduction in myelin production in MS are also involved in the cognitive impairment experienced by people with Alzheimer’s disease. Prickaerts’ research therefore also focuses on the suppression of the enzymes in question to improve cognition in Alzheimer’s patients. In November, in partnership with Alzheimer Centrum Limburg (Limburg Alzheimer’s Centre), UM is to start a four-year study on a promising drug that inhibits these proteins in Alzheimer’s patients in whom the disease is still only in the early stages. Because this medicine is already on the market as roflumilast, used for the treatment of the chronic lung disease COPD, it is possible to begin testing the possible effects in Alzheimer’s patients immediately. It is expected that roflumilast will work, but that the medicines newly developed in Hasselt and Maastricht will be even more effective in improving cognition. The development of these drugs for Alzheimer’s disease is part of the activities of a new research institute in Maastricht, BReIN.
Thanks to big data, for the first time we are now able to analyse large quantities of data rapidly and to identify patterns within it that are relevant to the incidence and prediction of diseases. The Province of Limburg, Maastricht UMC+ and Maastricht University are therefore jointly investing €20 million in a new research institute, named BReIN (Brightlands e-Infrastructure for Neurohealth – the acronym is the Dutch word for brain). This institute is intended to create effective infrastructure for the collection, storage and processing of big data in health care. An in-depth study on Alzheimer’s disease is to serve as a ‘prototype’. Environmental factors such as harmful chemicals, poor nutrition or lack of exercise play a crucial yet largely unknown role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Researchers will therefore begin by analysing samples of patients from Alzheimer Centrum Limburg. BReIN will thus initially be a platform for data collection, in particular genomic and MRI scan data. To gain a better understanding of the cause of Alzheimer’s and possible new therapies, experimental research is also needed. The research by Jos Prickaerts is a good example.