Scientists have found an abnormality in the immune systems of some multiple sclerosis patients that may offer a new insight into the cause of the crippling disease of young adults.
The researchers found that patients with a progressive form of MS had only about half the normal level of certain cells that help control the immune system, although the reason for this is not understood.
"This opens up a whole new area of study to find out why this happens and how it could be corrected," said Dr. Howard L. Weiner of Brigham and Women's Hospital.
About 250,000 Americans have MS, and about 10,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, primarily in people between the ages of 20 and 40. The disease is believed to be caused by patients' immune systems destroying the coating around nerve fibers. But researchers had not known why that happens or exactly what part of the immune system malfunctions.
The new study suggests that a lack of cells known as T-4 suppressor-inducer cells may allow other cells that normally fight disease to go out of control and attack the nervous system. "This suggests that this could be a major defect in the illness," said Weiner, whose findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study involved 63 patients with various stages of the disease who were compared to 84 healthy patients.