Alban Gaultier

School of Medicine researchers Megan S. Chappell (from left), Alban Gaultier and Anthony Fernández-Castañeda have identified a surprising contributor to multiple sclerosis that could lead to new treatments for the condition and possibly help doctors promote brain repair after injury.

Previously ignored cells are key contributors to multiple sclerosis, according to new research from the University of Virginia. 

School of Medicine researchers were trying to establish the beneficial aspects of cells known as oligodendocyte progenitor cells, which make up about 5% of the brain and spinal cord and were thought to protect the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve cells. In fact, they learned, progenitor cells contribute to the immune system's attack on healthy cells during neurological diseases such as MS.

"What we have discovered, which puts a new spin on research, is that progenitor cells can participate in neuroinflammation," said Alban Gaultier, an associate professor of neuroscience who runs a lab that focuses on MS. "Cells are more complex than people used to think."

In MS, the body’s immune system begins to attack the myelin, leading to a progressively disabling neurological condition that affects between 250,000 and 350,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Progenitor cells do contribute to healing, Gaultier said, but also can create inflammation that further damages nerve cells.

The discovery also led the team to wonder if more than one cell has been lumped together under the classification of progenitors; it is possible, Gaultier said, that further research can distinguish different types of cells that have positive and negative effects.

Gaultier's lab tested their discovery on mouse models in the lab with a version of the disease that most directly translates to progressive MS. The team was able to block the effects of the cells, which reduced inflammation and aided in myelin restoration.

"If you are able to block that contribution to the immune response in people, that could have a very beneficial effect," Gaultier said.

Ultimately, he said he hopes researchers can take their models and develop a greater understanding of progenitor cells, which in turn might lead to a therapy that can switch the positive or negative effects on or off. Such a discovery also could benefit other neuroinflammatory diseases that attack the myelin, such as inflammation of the optic nerve or spinal cord.

"Ultimately, we hope our discovery will help the scientific community come up with a therapy that will help tackle myelin destruction," Gaultier said.

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