Stephen Kintz
Jan 22, 2012

Diabetic mice provide multiple sclerosis breakthrough

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a terrible autoimmune disease that attacks the fatty myelin sheaths that insulate and protect the axons of the central nervous system. The symptoms of MS are numerous and widespread, including painful muscle spasms, vision loss, slurred speech and decreased cognitive abilities. The effects of this ghastly disease are harrowing on the patient and the patient’s family. Yet it must be even more unsettling to know that MS has no known cause or cure [PubMed Health: MS].

Oddly enough, mice might provide researchers with a new tool in the fight against MS. Mice are typically used in biomedical research as an animal model to study human diseases and possible treatments. Since the cause of MS is unknown, researchers have attempted to trigger MS symptoms in mice artificially. However, they were unable to get mice to exhibit symptoms in the same manner as humans. The mice did not have recurring episodes of inflammation, nor did the mice present with any damage to brain – just the spinal cord. Therefore, the mice were a poor animal model, which plagued MS research.

However, researchers at Tel Aviv University recently recreated the symptoms of MS in non-obese, diabetic mice. These symptomatic mice exhibit the typical pattern of recurring inflammatory attacks that damage the brain and lead to the myriad of symptoms often associated with MS. This allows researchers to study how MS damages the brain, and how possible treatments can slow, stop or heal this damage. Moreover, with symptoms presenting in the brain, researchers are better equipped to monitor the progression of the disease. The researchers are hoping that this new technique will provide scientists with a useful animal model that could lead to new diagnostic techniques and treatments [Tel Aviv University News].

The hope of new diagnostic techniques is very promising. The more researchers are able to learn about the effects of disease on the brain, the better they will be at spotting it. MS is a hard disease to diagnose. It typically presents with similar symptoms as other neurological diseases, so doctors are often forced to put patients through a long series of tests to rule out other diseases before diagnosing someone with MS. Anything that can make this process easier would be a welcome relief.

As for treatment, the mice finally allow researchers the ability to test potential treatments that could prevent or heal damage in the brain. For example, Hedvika Davis from the University of Central Florida recently turned umbilical cord stem cells into oligodendrocytes cells. Oligodendrocytes are the cells that produce the myelin sheath that are killed off in MS patients. Davis is hoping that these cells will prove useful in MS research as a possible treatment and provide researchers the ability to further study oligodendrocytes in the lab [University of Central Florida].

With the new animal models developed at Tel Aviv University, researchers can now test and observe how injecting the newly created oligodendrocytes cells into a patient might affect the brain. It is quite possible that simply injecting oligodendrocytes directly into the body will do little to relieve the symptoms of MS. More importantly, it could be dangerous and lead to a greater autoimmune response. With the new animal model, the treatment can monitored and studied. This will provide better information for future study and possible human trials.

Animal research is controversial to some. Yet, regardless of PETA’s feelings, animal research is a necessary and important part of biomedical research. Animal research played a role in every major medical breakthrough. It helped researchers cure polio, perform microsurgeries, transplant organs and create new antibiotics. In my mind, the debate around animal research is pointless.

Of course, there is also some disappointment in this MS model. Many of the best animal models are able to shed light onto the cause of the disease. With MS, we know the symptoms are caused by an autoimmune response that causes inflammation and death of oligodendrocytes. Unfortunately, this new animal model tells us nothing about the cause of this autoimmune response. It is a great model to study treatments for the damage caused by inflammation, but it does not tell people why or how they got MS. The cause is still an unknown.