PhotoIt’s not uncommon for medical discoveries to be made completely on accident.

In 1928, Scottish physician and microbiologist Alexander Fleming came back from holiday and found that a spot of mold in one of his petri dishes had inhibited the growth of a colony of Staphylococcus that he was testing. The discovery would eventually lead to the development of penicillin.

Now, researchers from the University of Alberta and McGill University may have accidentally discovered a new means of treating multiple sclerosis (MS). While studying human brain tissue, the team inadvertently found that samples from people who had the neurodegenerative disease had high levels of a protein called calnexin.

The finding prompted further study using mice. The researchers found that subjects that lacked the protein were completely immune to MS. The team believes that controlling levels of calnexin could be a viable pathway for a new treatment.

“We think this exciting finding identifies calnexin as an important target for developing therapies for MS,” said Luis Agellon, a professor and researcher at the McGill School of Human Nutrition.

Unlocking the secret of treating MS

Up until now, the researchers say that treating MS has been difficult because its causes are not well understood. However, they believe that high levels of calnexin could explain how the disease makes its way to the brain and causes damage.

“It turns out that calnexin is somehow involved in controlling the function of the blood-brain barrier,” explains Marek Michalak, a biochemistry professor at the University of Alberta. “This structure usually acts like a wall and restricts the passage of cells and substances from the blood into the brain. When there is too much calnexin, this wall gives angry T cells access to the brain, where they destroy myelin.”

The results of a 2016 study estimate that MS affects nearly 400,000 people in the U.S. and approximately 2.1 million people worldwide. Healthcare costs can range from just over $8,500 per patient to over $52,000 per patient depending on the severity and progression of the disease. The researchers believe their finding could lead to a treatment that helps stop the disease in its tracks.

“Our challenge now is to tease out exactly how this protein works in the cells involved in making up the blood-brain barrier. If we knew exactly what calnexin does in this process, then we could find a way to manipulate its function to promote resistance for developing MS,” said Agellon.

The full study has been published in JCI Insight.


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