Scientists are hoping to use the technology that created Covid jabs to develop a vaccine that halts the disabling effects of multiple sclerosis (MS).
Earlier this year a landmark study found that the incurable neurological illness, which affects more than 130,000 Britons and can lead to poor mobility, numbness, fatigue and paralysis, is triggered by the Epstein-Barr virus, the same infection that causes glandular fever. Covid jab manufacturer Moderna is already testing an Epstein-Barr vaccine designed to stop people from catching the virus in the first place.
Experts now want to give it to MS patients to see if it could slow the progression of the disease and reduce the severity of symptoms.
‘The link between Epstein-Barr and MS is beyond question now,’ says Professor Lawrence Young, a virus expert at the University of Warwick who will head the new study. ‘If we could neutralise levels of the virus in the blood with a vaccine, we believe it would be possible to reverse some of the worst symptoms of this awful disease.’
Scientists believe they have discovered a link between the Epstein-Barr virus, pictured, and MS. They hope techniques developed to target Covid-19 will be able to treat Epstein-Barr and reduce the symptoms of MS
Covid jab manufacturer Moderna is already testing an Epstein-Barr vaccine designed to stop people from catching the virus in the first place
MS occurs when the immune system goes haywire, attacking and causing damage to the myelin sheath, the protective coating on brain and spinal-cord nerves.
This leads to devastating symptoms such as poor mobility and numbness in the limbs, as well as mental health problems. MS cannot currently be cured and sufferers will usually die sooner as a result of the damage it causes.
In 2018, a small Australian study developed an experimental drug therapy which trained the immune system to hunt out Epstein-Barr in MS patients. Of ten patients given the medication, six saw marked improvements in their symptoms.
‘The results of this trial were remarkable,’ says Prof Young. ‘Even severe symptoms such as paralysis and loss of eyesight were reversed.’
However, the Australian drug has proven to be expensive and time-consuming to produce.
Prof Young believes a similar, cheaper treatment could be created using the technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer Covid vaccines – known as MRNA – which is designed to tailor vaccines to target specific cells in the body.
He adds: ‘In the near future we’re hoping to collaborate with one of these MRNA companies, and begin a trial to see if we can fight MS using a vaccine.’