I have a member of my extended family that has MS. It’s an awful disease on two fronts. First is that it can obviously be physically devastating. However, even if you dodge that bullet, you then have to make a myriad of decisions to take very dangerous drugs that each can cause serious illness by themselves in an attempt at delaying or eliminating remissions. Hence, better and less toxic treatments for MS patients are a good thing.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
The brain and spinal cord are the two primary structures within our central nervous system (CNS). Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks its central nervous system, most specifically the myelin, which is a protective coating around the nerves. The result is observing plaque areas (sclerosis) in the many (multiple) areas damaged by the attacks.
Physical manifestations of multiple sclerosis vary significantly but commonly include weakness and fatigue; pain, numbness, and/or tingling; problems with vision, such as blurred or double vision; poor coordination and balance; disruptions in memory and inability to concentrate; and depression. The disease is typically diagnosed in early to mid-adulthood. In some patients, it can be progressive, and it is also unpredictable as some are able to maintain some degree of mobility and disease management as the disease worsens while others become severely disabled and may even experience paralysis in later stages. However, it’s more commonly the less severe form of the disease that shows up, which is known as relapsing-remitting. This is when the patient only gets intermittent bouts of less severe illness followed by remissions without symptoms.
One of the big conundrums for MS patients these days is that you really never know for sure what form of the disease you have unless it’s the really severe form. Meaning, given that the less severe form of relapsing-remitting disease is the most common, given that you were medicated for the first bout of symptoms and then you got better, do you have a less severe or more severe form of the disease? Most MS patients I know are scared to death to get off of the heavy-handed medications they have been placed on to find out. This is despite that fact that many of these drugs have very severe side effects, like cancer or dying from a minor infection because you’re immunocompromised.
There is no cure yet for MS, but as technology and research advances, studies are revealing more and more helpful information about this devastating disease. We’re going to look at a new study today, but to understand the study, you first need to familiarize yourself with cellular senescence.
What Is Cellular Senescence?
Cellular senescence is becoming a more and more common topic of focus in the cellular research world. So what exactly is senescence as it relates to cellular biology? Quite simply, senescent cells are cells that are no longer able to divide. Why is it important for our cells to divide? When stem cells divide, they create two copies of themselves, a progenitor cell and a reserve stem cell. The progenitor cell then begins regenerating damaged tissues and replaces a dying cell by specializing, or becoming, the local cell type (this specializing process is called cell differentiation). If you want a brief glimpse into this process, see my video below:
So a stem cell that cannot divide cannot create progenitor cells that differentiate and replace dying cells. As we age, more and more of our stem cells become senescent cells. Senescent cells are actually still metabolically active cells, however, but in the process they secrete proinflammatory chemicals, potentially leading to chronic, or bad, inflammation, which is also associated with aging. One study suggests that if we could stimulate senescent cells to start dividing again, this might slow aging and if we could eliminate these senescent cells, we might stop aging altogether.
A new study examined cellular senescence and its potential association with MS, which is not an aging-related disease as it is typically diagnosed, as already mentioned, in early to mid-adulthood. Let’s review.
Premature Aging of Brain Cells May Play a Part in Multiple Sclerosis
During the new study, during post-mortem exams, researchers found senescent neural cells in those sclerotic, or plaque areas where the myelin had been destroyed in white matter. They concluded that this cellular senescence contributes to disruption of cellular function in those demyelinated lesions (those plaque formations that occur when the myelin is destroyed) in MS. In other words, premature aging of stem or progenitor cells (premature senescence) may play a part in multiple sclerosis.
So as these brain progenitor cells go into senescence, they aren’t able to repair and replace damaged neurons. Does this mean that adding mesenchymal stem cells or another neural progenitor cell to the brain may help multiple sclerosis? In other words, could a stem cell reboot help patients with multiple sclerosis? While this conclusion can’t be assumed, it’s certainly a question posed by the new research, so it will be interesting to see what further research reveals.
The upshot? Could treating MS be as simple as a stem cell reboot? This would likely be less invasive than the heavy-handed immune suppressant drugs that are the current mainstay of treating these patients. However, only time will tell if that type of treatment works.