A glimmer of hope for multiple sclerosis sufferers and for those with other autoimmune diseases is offered with the opening of a research centre in Oxford dedicated to therapeutic antibodies.
The opening coincides with news that Cambridge research on therapeutic antibodies appears to be working for 20 patients with MS. The results are preliminary as MS is difficult to study because the symptoms come and go.
Oxford University's Therapeutic Antibody Centre is to specialise in manufacturing monoclonal antibodies and testing their effectiveness in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and MS.
Antibody therapy uses a person's own immune products to treat disease. Scientists take a single immune cell and multiply it artificially, so that all the resulting cells produce the same antibody as the original cell. The antibodies can be used to home in on and attack tumour cells.
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body's antibodies attack some of its own tissues. Here, the therapeutic antibody targets immune cells instead to allow a respite for the tissue under attack.
The centre has two directors: Herman Waldmann, head of Oxford's Sir William Dunn school of pathology, and Geoff Hale. Both co-founded a therapeutic antibody centre in Cambridge in 1990.
Dr Hale described research at Cambridge masterminded by Alastair Compston, professor of neurology. Scientists used magnetic resonance scanning to take pictures of the brains of MS sufferers. They found that sufferers had similar areas of damage to their brains.
"We think that the patient's own blood cells are attacking the brain in some way," said Dr Hale. "With antibodies they may be able to stop the blood cells from doing this."
Two years after therapy, scans show the number of damaged areas reduced. "We think we are able to interrupt the process so that it doesn't progress," said Dr Hale. "But it is premature to say that the people are clinically progressing".