COVID vaccines might change how we treat MS

Our expert explains how the new mRNA vaccine technology can be applied to MS

During all the discussions about the pandemic and vaccinations, something interesting happened for the MS community.

BioNTech, the company that delivered the first approved COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA technology, published a scientific study where they show an interesting new mechanism which could potentially treat multiple sclerosis.

The new idea

Our body’s immune system has to learn and fine tune every day, distinguishing its own structures (autoantigens) from foreign organisms like a virus or bacteria. So it has to stay tolerant concerning its own structures while it needs to arm itself towards harmful intruders.

In a similar way that we can stimulate the immune system to react to foreign antigens (like from the coronavirus) with a vaccine, we could make parts of the immune response more tolerant towards autoantigens (e.g. myelin) that accidentally get attacked by our immune system in MS.

Using a specialised messenger RNA, the team from BioNTech delivered disease-related autoantigens to mice suffering experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), an MS-like disease in mice which used a lot in research.

Increasing immune tolerance without increasing demyelination

You would normally assume that by delivering an autoantigen and inducing another immune response, the disease would become worse. But in this study, the opposite was the case.

In the study this reaction happened without an inflammatory signal (costimulating factor) which usually acts as sort of an alarm bell to reinforce the immune response. By doing this they were able to increase the immune tolerance in the mice.

Using this treatment, the researchers could show strong suppression of the disease’s inflammatory and demyelinating activity in the mice. But MS is more complicated. There is no single autoantigen that the immune system is targeting.

This is why the cells responsible for immune tolerance, called regulatory T-cells, need to act more generally in the way that they dampen the immune response (bystander immunosuppression).

The scientists were able to show that their approach could do so. This means a new potential therapy could increase the tolerance of the immune system without having to rely on a more ‘blunt’ immunosuppression like many current MS drugs do.

What happens next?

These interesting new treatment ideas will still have to undergo important research steps before they can be taken to humans. If after the additional research, it is still looking promising, the next step would be to do clinical research trials.

There is still a long way to go before this new idea possibly becomes an exciting new treatment. But still, very interesting times!

Researched and written by Dr. Adrian-Minh Schumacher

    - Emilyn's MS Expert