Research team closes in on disease cure

Heather Fors

University researchers hope that a new nasal treatment, proven effective on mice, will have the same results on humans in curing a disease where the immune system attacks normal agents in the body.
Headed by Bianca Conti-Fine, a University biochemistry professor, the research team asserts that an introduction of certain agents to the body through the nose will neutralize the immune system and possibly cure myasthenia gravis. The disease disables the muscles of its carrier.
Human testing of the procedure will begin at the University of North Carolina in January. But scientists are quick to point out that it will be a few years before the treatment’s effectiveness will be known.
“As scientists, we’re always skeptical. We say we’ll wait and see, but the animal studies look encouraging,” said Dr. James Howard, professor of neurology and head of the Division of Neuromuscular Disorders at North Carolina.
In a normal body, a nerve sends signals through a chemical messenger that attaches to a receiving station — an acetylcholine receptor — and the muscle contracts.
However, in patients with the disease, the immune system sees the receptors as something posing danger to the body and attacks them. When the component that tells the muscles to move is destroyed, Conti-Fine said, the nerves will keep telling the muscles to move but they don’t respond.
“The immune system uses, in a sense, the same tools of destruction that it normally would use to get rid of a virus, a bug or a cancer, but destroys the things which are very normal,” she said.
Conti-Fine added that the antibodies that cause the disease and attack the receptors are B-cells made sticky with the help of T-helper cells. However, if the T-cells were not present, the antibodies would not be sticky and therefore would not do much harm.
The disease treatment developed by the research team exploited a common occurrence in the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems. Debris regularly gets through the linings of these systems and is not attacked by the immune system, Conti-Fine said.
Their theory, she said, is that if the body is constantly subjected to something, it will accept rather than attack it. If the theories work, she added, researchers may be able to use these findings in treating other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and hemophilia.
Conti-Fine is currently working with Nigel Key, assistant professor of medicine and director of the adult hemophilia program at the University, to apply the myasthenia gravis research to hemophilia.
Hemophilia, which afflicts about 250,000 people a year in the United States, is a bleeding disorder where there’s a deficiency of one of the necessary factors for coagulation of the blood.
Mark Redding, a Hemotology Fellow at the University, said the disease is quite uncommon but added that the financial implication is tremendous. He said the cost of treating these patients is more than $100,000 a year.
“There are a lot of antibody-related diseases out there … but there may be principles (in Conti-Fine’s research) that may extend to a number of diseases,” Key said.