'Inverse vaccine' shows promise treating MS, other autoimmune diseases

New research effectively cured mice of multiple sclerosis–type symptoms. Could this work in humans?

Antibodies attacking healthy nerve cells
Antibodies attacking healthy nerve cells, causing multiple sclerosis
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Researchers at the University of Chicago completely reversed a multiple sclerosis–type autoimmune disorder in mice, using a new technique that tricked the liver into neutering a specific immune response, the team reported in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. Current treatments for autoimmune diseases suppress the entire immune system, making patients more susceptible to infections.

A body's protective T cells attack antigens, or molecules and molecule fragments, usually harmful viruses or bacteria. But with autoimmune diseases, the T cells attack a body's own healthy molecules, called self-antigens, Science explained. The University of Chicago team found that by attaching a sugar protein, N-acetylgalactosamine (pGal), to the self-antigen under assault, they could send it to the liver, which would teach the immune system to tolerate the molecule. 

"Rather than rev up immunity as with a vaccine, we can tamp it down in a very specific way with an inverse vaccine," lead author Jeffrey Hubbell said in a statement. The hope is that these "inverse vaccines" will prove effective at treating MS, lupus, Type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, myasthenia gravis and other befuddling autoimmune disorders. A company Hubbell co-founded recently completed a phase 1 trial using this technique on people with celiac disease and has started a phase 2 trial. 

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Scientists not involved in the research said the findings are promising but cautioned that previous methods for calming a body's immune response to self-antigens had come up short when moving from animal testing to human trials. 

The paper is "a strong piece of work," introducing "a cool new way" to teach the body's defenses to stop attacking healthy tissue, Stanford Medicine neuroimmunologist Lawrence Steinman told Science. Whether this approach ultimately proves effective in humans, he added, "I hope that someday somebody is going to get it right and change the world."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.