The most effective way to treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis is through drugs that suppress the immune system. But these drugs also leave patients at risk for infections.
Now, researchers are testing an alternative. Dr. Howard Weiner, co-director of the Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, is trying to treat multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases by feeding patients certain proteins. In multiple sclerosis, for example, T cells -- the body's key defense against foreign invaders -- attack a myelin protein sheath on nerves. Weiner and Dr. David Hafler of Harvard University found that feeding animals a form of the myelin protein alleviated the disease. The scientists think oral ingestion of the right protein turns off the T cells, negating the immune system's attack. "The elegance of this approach is its specificity and lack of any unlikely side effects," says Hafler. It could also stave off rejection of transplanted organs. Results from human studies should be available within a year.