Tom Lane, a UCI molecular biology & biochemistry professor, heads a campuswide effort exploring the use of stem cells to repair nerve damage from multiple sclerosis. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Could stem cells reverse MS?

Biologist Tom Lane and a team of UCI researchers are leading an effort to determine whether a stem-cell-based treatment can repair neurological damage caused by multiple sclerosis.

More than eight years ago, Tom Lane helped discover a potential way to prevent multiple sclerosis from affecting the central nervous system. Now he’s leading an effort at UC Irvine to determine whether a stem-cell-based treatment can repair neurological damage caused by the chronic disease.

Lane, a molecular biology & biochemistry professor, is among 15 U.S. researchers who recently received five-year Collaborative MS Research Center Awards from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. With the $742,500 in funding, he has assembled a team to investigate the use of cell-replacement therapy to regenerate MS-ravaged nerve tissue.

In people with MS, immune-system T cells attack myelin, the protective coating of nerves, and eventually the nerve fibers themselves. Symptoms may be mild, such as intermittent numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. There is no cure for MS, and current treatments mainly try to limit immune-system response.

“The promise of cell-replacement strategies to treat MS is significant,” Lane says. “Imagine being able to infuse people with cells that could make new myelin or transform into healthy nerve cells. That’s the focus of our effort.”

Spinal cord injury research at UCI has already shown the potential of cell-replacement therapy to repair myelin. Neurobiologist Hans Keirstead pioneered a technique to turn human embryonic stem cells into myelin-making oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) that, he demonstrated, can restore impaired nerve function. These findings form the basis of an upcoming clinical trial involving people with acute spinal cord injury.

With Keirstead providing the cell lines, the UCI team will explore OPCs’ ability to repair MS-related myelin damage and how the cells could be safely introduced into the body. Researchers and their topics include:

  • Lane studying immune-system messenger cells called chemokines that permit the migration of OPCs to their targeted nerve sites.
  • Dr. George Chandy, physiology & biophysics professor, investigating methods of muting T cell response while OPCs reconstruct myelin.
  • Michael Cahalan, physiology & biophysics professor and chair, developing ways to track and visualize the migration of stem cells and immune cells within the living central nervous system.
  • Dr. Michael Demetriou, associate professor of neurology and director of the comprehensive MS program at UC Irvine Medical Center, examining how enzymes direct T cells and, possibly, OPCs.
  • Dr. Steven Schreiber, neurology professor and interim chair, determining whether niacin can increase the repair capacity of OPCs.

“With the knowledge acquired from these studies, we believe we’ll lay the foundation for the creation of safe and effective treatments to improve quality of life for people with MS,” Lane says. “UCI has long been a leader in MS research and patient care, and it’s exciting to be part of the significant impact our researchers and clinicians make in this field.”

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