Recent findings that were presented at an investor meeting early this year found that immune cells that fight against Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) have the potential to slow down or reverse the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).
According to epidemiological studies, more than 90% of people worldwide have been infected with EBV at some point in their life, usually with no ill effects.
Because EBV can survive in the body for a long time by being dormant, it can be difficult to detect. The virus has the ability to become active from time to time. Meaning an infected individual could experience symptoms repeatedly.
The study was conducted by Atara Biotherapeutics; a company located in San Francisco, California.
Atara’s chief medical officer, Dr. Joshi explained that there is strong evidence that shows EBV infection plays a major role in the development of MS. In fact, Harvard scientists previously found that people with Epstein-Barr virus have 32 times increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis.
In this study, Atara’s team conducted a trial with a small group of 24 MS patients by injecting them with T-cells that target the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
MS remains a mysterious disease. It occurs when the immune system is attacking the nerve cells thereby causing symptoms such as fatigue, pain, and mobility problems.
Experts have not been able to fully understand MS even though it affects about 900,000 people in the US and 130,000 brits.
There is currently no known cure for MS. It is a chronic illness that can only be managed with medication and physical therapy.
One in ten patients experiences progressive MS. This means some people with multiple sclerosis get worsening symptoms over time leading to their condition deteriorating.
People with progressive MS have very few available treatment options.
To help such people, Atara’s team used T-cells therapy to target MS development.
This therapy involves the extracting of Immune cells called ATA188 from people who have recovered from glandular fever caused by the Epstein-Barr virus infection. After isolation, the cells were given as an injection to MS patients.
Atara Biotherapeutics did the drug trial on 24 multiple sclerosis sufferers for one year in 2017.
The participants came from all over the US and Australia. Different doses of the T-cell therapy treatment were given to the patients to evaluate its effects.
To ensure compatibility, the team crossmatched the donated samples of the recovered EBV participants with the blood of the MS patients.
After the initial trial, 18 people chose to continue the therapy for three or more years till August 2021.
The scientist in this study examined scans of nerve damage in the brain (caused by MS). They also used the expanded disability status scale (EDSS) to test and measure the physical symptoms of MS patients.
While the study did not specify the dose and frequency of the drug given to MS patients, 20 of the initial 24 showed reduced physical symptoms according to the EDSS grading after one year.
And the brain scans of nine of the participants were significantly improved after three years.
According to neurologists Mark Freedman (a third party), it is nearly impossible to see patients with progressive MS improve naturally. The professor at the University of Ottawa explains that there is a certain stage of progressive MS where the patient becomes noticeably disabled. And such a condition cannot reverse on its own without treatments.
In other words, the T-cell therapy by Atara’s team is likely the main reason MS participants in the study showed signs of improvements.
This evidence suggests that the patients who saw results might have regenerated new myelin sheaths which were previously damaged by multiple sclerosis. This is a possible explanation for the improved EDSS grades recorded by the team.
The result of this study is encouraging for people with MS and their loved ones. However, the team acknowledged that the sample size is small. And, the results may be due to placebo; (a term used to describe a situation where patients become better because they expect to).
Despite the evidence, scientists explain that further research needs to be done before getting MS sufferers excited about possible treatment for their condition.
The good news is that Atara has recently announced that the team has begun phase II of the T-cell therapy trial with 80 MS patients.