Over two million people worldwide are affected by multiple sclerosis, or MS for short. This includes over 400,000 individuals in the U.S. The condition is an autoimmune disorder that often affects adults in the prime of their lives. In the past, there were few multiple sclerosis treatments, and thousands suffered significant disability as a result. But today, several varieties of drugs are available, preserving a much higher level of function and independence in many.
While progress has been made concerning multiple sclerosis treatments in the last two decades, cures have remained elusive. In part, these difficulties have been due to the inherent complexities of the human immune system itself. But recently, researchers at BioNTech announced some pretty incredible findings. Using similar mRNA techniques used in their COVID vaccines, they have developed a similar vaccination for MS. And at least in preliminary studies involving mice, the results look incredibly promising.
“Autoimmune diseases like MS represent conditions in which the immune system malfunctions and attacks healthy tissue or cells of the body…This damage disrupts the ability to transmit signals between nerve cells and the target tissue resulting in a range of neurological, sensory and motor symptoms that may differ greatly between individuals.” – BioNTech press release
The Challenges with Multiple Sclerosis Treatments
In order to understand the difficulties inherent to managing MS, it helps to have a basic understanding of the disease. In essence, patients with MS have immune systems that attack a protein substance on their nerves called myelin. In many ways, myelin is like the plastic coating on an electrical wire that provides insulation. Once this myelin is attacked and damaged, nerves are no longer able to send messages to and from different areas. Depending on where this “short circuit” occurs determines the type of symptoms a person will have. These symptoms can vary significantly ranging from vision loss, numbness, clumsiness, to paralysis.
Notably, the immune system is overactive in terms of its response to myelin. As a result, multiple sclerosis treatments tend to suppress or modulate the immune system to make it less active. Unfortunately, this can cause its own set of problems, making MS patients vulnerable to some infections. Others are exploring stem cell treatments for MS. (For more on stem cell treatments, check out this Bold Business article.) But to date, researchers have been unable to protect these patients’ myelin from attack in a more specific manner. But that’s exactly what BioNTech’s vaccination for MS hopes to do. If it is successful, it will represent a major achievement not only in MS research but for all autoimmune diseases.
COVID’s Role in the Vaccination for MS
The coronavirus pandemic has imposed tremendous strains on healthcare systems throughout the globe. But likewise, COVID has served as a catalyst for new developments. This certainly applies in relation to BioNTech’s vaccination for MS. Notably, BioNTech partnered with Pfizer in producing the first FDA approved coronavirus vaccine. Its efficacy rate has been stated to be 95 percent when both doses are administered within a few weeks of one another. Likewise, the COVID vaccine is a mRNA vaccine, which utilizes new genetic technologies not previously explored. It’s this same mRNA strategy that BioNTech used in development its vaccination for MS. While the mechanism of action is different, the same basic methodologies were used in its design.
In the COVID vaccination, mRNA injected into the body to stimulate the production of the virus’ spike protein. Once produced by the body’s cells, the immune system then attacks the protein, which appears to provide lasting immunity. In the vaccination for MS, however, the injected mRNA promotes the production of a myelin protein. Though an immune response to this myelin protein occurs, it is much less intense. Not only does this protein serve as a type of decoy. But it also teaches the immune system to more tolerant of myeline proteins in general. In essence, such multiple sclerosis treatments could serve to reeducate immune systems not to attack patients’ myelin.
“Overall, these initial results regarding the immune response together with the flexibility of the mRNA approach to target individual patient [target molecules] indicate the potential of mRNA therapeutics to address highly complex and rare autoimmune disease indications.” – Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech
A New Strategy for Multiple Sclerosis Treatments
The current research performed by BioNTech is what’s triggering some excitement about a vaccination for MS. The group essentially explored how its mRNA vaccine performed in various groups of mice. The mice had different models of autoimmune conditions that are used to mimic multiple sclerosis. After several trials, mice that received the vaccination for MS had no further declines or new exacerbation of the disease. In addition, several actually had improvements in their existing features. In contrast, the untreated mice demonstrated continued declines and worsening features of their disease.
Notably, these trials were only in mice and therefore, limited in their interpretations. However, the researchers did see some changes in the treated mice worth noting. In these animals, specific immune cells called regulator T cells increased in response. They believe this suggests that these cells play a role in the development of immune tolerance. If so, multiple sclerosis treatments that boost regulator T cells specific to myelin could be highly effective. Similar treatments might also be beneficial in a wide variety of other autoimmune conditions as well.
Vaccinations as a New Part of Targeted Medicine
With the advancement of genetic technologies, many areas are moving toward a model of targeted medicine. Also known as precision medicine, these therapies are personalizing care while also targeted specific features of disease. Such approaches have been considered in cancer therapies for years. But they are also gaining ground in other areas like Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disorders. Based on BioNTech’s vaccination for MS and COVID, such therapies may soon include targeted vaccines as well. This would be quite welcomed as new forms of multiple sclerosis treatments when they do.
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