As the fight for a multiple sclerosis (MS) cure continues, a research team has recently published a study describing a “potentially novel therapeutic target” that can repair damaged brain tissue in MS patients.

MS involves damage to the myelin sheath, which is a protective outer covering surrounding nerve cells. With MS, myelin is destroyed by inflammation and scarring, causing nerve signals to slow down or stop, which can lead to numbness or tingling in limbs. It isn’t completely certain what causes the inflammation, though typically it occurs when the body’s immune cells attack the nervous system. It may have something to do with genetic defects or environmental factors. Multiple sclerosis most commonly affects women over men, and it is typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, though it can be symptomatic at any age.

In the brains of people living with multiple sclerosis, new cells are eventually produced to repair damage in brain tissue, often years after symptoms occur. But for whatever difficult-to-pinpoint reasons, many times these cells are unable to complete the repairing process. Therapies used now typically focus on reducing the initial myelin damage, rather than promoting brain cell growth or myelin regeneration. These medicines "have little impact in promoting remyelination in tissue," Gallo said in a press release. This particular study, published in Neuron, pinpointed the protein known as Endothelin-1, or ET-1, as having therapeutic potential; it could repair tissue, as it has been shown to inhibit repair of myelin. Targeting ET-1 would involve identifying signals in cells that promote lesion repair.

“We demonstrate that ET-1 drastically reduces the rate of remyelination,” Vittorio Gallo, Director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System, said in the press release. Thus ET-1 is “potentially a therapeutic target to promote lesion repair in deymyelinated tissue… [which could play a] crucial role in preventing normal myelination in MS and in other demyelinating diseases.”

Currently, there is no cure for MS, though there are plenty of treatments that can slow or stall the disorder. Taking medication early on can greatly reduce the risk of damage to nerves, and making sure to live a stress-free and balanced life can be helpful as well. Physical therapy and exercise can be used to combat some of the physical repercussions of MS damage, such as weakness in muscle.

Previous research has searched for a way to better repair brain cells in MS patients, but by looking at different features to target. For example, a study published last year identified how cells are able to regenerate the myelin layer around nerves. Another study discovered that certain immune cells called dendritic cells are protective against MS in a mouse model.

Source: Hammond T, Gallo V, Gadea A, et al. Astrocyte-Derived Endothelin-1 Inhibits Remyelination through Notch Activation. Neuron. 2014.