ALS: Immune cells may slow disease progression

A new study brings hope for people with ALS. Immunotherapy may dramatically slow down the progression of the disease, it shows.

The neurodegenerative condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) affects nerve cells, which control the movement of muscles, in the brain and spinal cord.

In ALS, these cells deteriorate over time, which gradually leads to overall weakness, problems breathing, speaking, and swallowing.

Ultimately, the disease results in complete paralysis, respiratory failure, and death.

ALS — which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the famous baseball player who was diagnosed with the disease in the 1930s — is estimated to affect over 20,000 people in the United States at any given time.

Moreover, just over 6,000 people in the U.S. are thought to receive an ALS diagnosis every year.

For the time being, there is no cure for ALS. Current treatments delay the progression of the disease, but not by much.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have so far approved two drugs to treat ALS: one extends life by 2–3 months but does not improve the symptoms, and one can help to delay the decline in daily functioning.

Breaking research, however, brings new hope for a more effective ALS treatment. Researchers led by neurologist Dr. Stanley H. Appel, co-director of the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute in Texas, examined the benefits of immunotherapy for people with this condition.

More specifically, the team injected a type of immune T cell called regulatory T cells (Tregs) into three ALS patients. This is the first time that this therapy has been investigated in humans.

The findings were published in the journal Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation.

Studying the role of Tregs in ALS

Tregs help to stave off the inflammation that characterizes ALS and speeds up the progression of the disease.

“We found,” notes Dr. Appel, “that many of our ALS patients not only had low levels of Tregs, but also that their Tregs were not functioning properly.”

So, the researchers hypothesized that increasing the levels of Tregs in three ALS patients would slow down the disease.

“We believed that improving the number and function of Tregs in these patients would affect how their disease progressed,” Dr. Appel says.

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