Researchers in Israel are working on a new treatment they hope will
slow down the progressive deterioration suffered by patients with
multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.
The new treatment uses the body’s own cells as a vaccine against
autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), according to
Professor Irun R. Cohen of the Weizmann Institute who invented the
treatment and is leading the study.
Cohen is the director of the newly established National Institute of
Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN), associated with Ben Gurion
University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. He said Israel is an ideal
place for such research “because we exist beyond the pressures for
conformity that you have in the U.S.” He added that Israel is a much
better atmosphere for interdisciplinary collaboration as well.
“At Weizmann I share students with physicists, chemists and
mathematicians. It is easy to talk to people here; everyone is free
and generous with their ideas. There is a feeling that we are a small
country and we have to pull together – and we do,” he said.
Double-blind trials are being held at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in
Jerusalem and Sheba Multiple Sclerosis Center at Sheba Hospital, a
multi-disciplinary treatment facility which treats more than 60% of
Israel’s MS patients. The center, founded in 1995, offers diagnostic
and treatment services through preventive and rehabilitative care.
Multiple sclerosis is caused by white blood cells that attack the
central nervous system and destroy the sclera which coat the nerves
that run throughout the body. As the sclera is destroyed, the body
deteriorates, often leading to severe disability and sometimes death.
Professor Anat Achiron, director of the center and a former student
of Cohen’s, is leading the research team at Sheba, where 47 patients
have participated in the trial thus far. Some received the real
vaccine and others received a placebo.
In the real treatment, patients are vaccinated with cells taken from
those in the early stages of the disease and processed in a way that
causes them to become inactive.
The inactive cells are then injected into the patients’ bodies in a
massive dose which triggers the body’s immune system to destroy them
as well as any that might appear in the future.
Cohen has been working on the revolutionary new treatment since 1981,
when he published an initial study with Avraham Bin-Nun that showed
that T-cells could be adapted to help the body fight diseases they
T-cells, a type of lymphocyte, are blood cells which play a role in
the body’s immune system. The “T” stands for thymus, the organ where
T-cells complete their development.
Cohen is careful not to raise false hopes and warns that it is too
soon to draw conclusions before the trials are completed and the data
“Only when we discover who among the patients is getting the vaccine
and who is getting the placebo will we be able to assess absolutely
the precise influence of the vaccine,” he said, but was optimistic
about the potential for success.