Published in Research Headlines, Research Information Centre, European Commission
Autoimmune diseases establish themselves when antibodies designed to protect the human body against foreign invaders turn against their own cells and tissues. In multiple sclerosis (MS), antibodies begin to attack nerve cells which leads to a degeneration of the myelin fibres, the sheath that surrounds neurons. Very little is known about where these antibodies come from, but now scientists have identified a way to allocate antibodies to their source cells, thereby allowing a better tracking of these rogue molecules.

In multiple sclerosis healthy nerve cells are attacked by aggressive antibodies,© Shutterstock

The immune system in a healthy person defends the body robustly against invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. The system produces millions of antibodies that defend us against these pathogens, but in an autoimmune disease these antibodies no longer recognise their own cells, seeing them instead as foreign bodies which must be attacked.
In multiple sclerosis, the antibodies cause inflammation in the central nervous system as cells attack myelin, a fatty substance that surrounds nerve fibres. Consequent degeneration and scarring of the myelin leads to an impaired functioning of neurological impulses from the brain. Those suffering from multiple sclerosis (‘sclerosis’ means ‘hardening’ in Greek), experience a number of symptoms including numbness and tingling in the fingers, blurred vision and loss of memory.
Finding out where the aggressive antibodies that attack the myelin sheath originate is an important step in understanding multiple sclerosis. If like other antibodies, the MS-related molecules originate in the blood or lymphatic organs such as the spleen, bone marrow or lymph nodes, then they would have to move through the blood to reach the liquid surrounding the nerve cells.
At the Max-Planck Institutes of Neurobiology and Biochemistry and the University Hospital of Grobhadern in Munich, Germany, scientists have developed a method of tracking these antibodies back to their original cells.
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