Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an immune-mediated inflammatory disease that affects approximately 2.3 million people around the world. The disease causes your immune system to attack a specific type of tissue found within your central nervous system called myelin. Myelin is an insulating layer, or sheath that forms around nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. When this type of tissue is damaged, it can cause communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body.
If left alone, this degenerative disease eventually leads to the deterioration of the nerves and can cause permanent damage. At the moment, there isn’t any cure for multiple sclerosis. However, Dr. Su Metcalfe is hoping to change that. Her company LIFNano is currently working on a life-changing discovery that could potentially cure MS.
The Potential Cure
During her research, Su discovered a small binary switch, controlled by a LIF (Leukemia Inhibitory Factor), which regulates inside the immune cell itself. LIF is able to keep the cell under control to ensure it doesn’t attack your own body, except when it is actually needed. (1)
“That LIF, in addition to regulating and protecting us against attack, also plays a major role in keeping the brain and spinal cord healthy. In fact it plays a major role in tissue repair generally, turning on stem cells that are naturally occurring in the body, making it a natural regenerative medicine, but also plays a big part in repairing the brain when it’s been damaged.”
“So I thought, this is fantastic. We can treat auto-immune disease, and we’ve got something to treat MS, which attacks both the brain and the spinal cord. So you have a double whammy that can stop and reverse the auto-immunity, and also repair the damage caused in the brain.” (2)
Unfortunately, LIF only has a lifetime of 20 minutes. Once the stem-cell particles enter your body, they wouldn’t have enough time for the therapeutic actions to deploy before being broken down. This is where nanoparticle technology came in.
The Role of Nanoparticles
Nanoparticles can be made from the same material as soluble stitches, so they’re quite compatible with the body. By using nanoparticles as the delivery device, LIF can be effectively administered over a period of five days.
As Su explains, “the nanoparticle itself is a protective environment, and the enzymes that break it down can’t access it. You can also decorate the surface of the particles with antibodies, so it becomes a homing device that can target specific parts of the brain. So you get the right dose, in the right place, and at the right time.”
The Positive Effects of Nano-Medicine
According to Su, “nano-medicine is a new era, and big pharma has already entered this space to deliver drugs while trying to avoid the side effects. The quantum leap is to actually go into biologics and tap into the natural pathways of the body.”
“We’re not using any drugs, we’re simply switching on the body’s own systems of self-tolerance and repair. There aren’t any side effects because all we’re doing is tipping the balance.” (3)
“Auto-immunity happens when that balance has gone awry slightly, and we simply reset that. Once you’ve done that, it becomes self-sustaining and you don’t have to keep giving therapy, because the body has its balance back.”
LIFNano has already received major funding from drug firm Merck and the Government’s Innovate UK agency. Su hopes to attract additional funding with the goal of starting clinical trials by 2020.
“We’ve got everything we need in place to make the nanoparticles in a clinically compliant manner, it’s just a case of flicking the switch when we have the money. We’re looking at VCs and big pharma because they have a strong interest in this area. We’re doing all our pre-clinical work concurrently while bringing in the major funds the company needs to go forward in its own right.”
Su’s career always revolved around immune cells because she has a strong passion for it.
“The immune cell is the only single cell in the body that is its own unity, so it functions alone. It’s probably one of the most powerful cells in the body because it can kill you, and if you haven’t got it you die because you haven’t got it.”
While her focus is on MS at the moment, her work can potentially lead into other major autoimmune disease areas, such as psoriasis, diabetes and dementia.
Her research could change the lives of millions of people. To learn more about Su’s research and its progress, click here.