A 'Holy Grail' molecular target has been discovered to protect nerves from damage in multiple sclerosis (MS), a study has said.

The paper, published in Acta Neuropathologica on Wednesday, also said that a common diabetes drug could help enhance this new-found natural mechanism and prevent disability progression in the neurological condition.

In MS, the protective coating surrounding nerves known as myelin is damaged causing them to become less energy efficient which makes them vulnerable to further damage and causes disability over time, the MS Society said.

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Following a research programme spanning more than a decade, researchers at the University of Edinburgh, partly funded by the MS Society, discovered a natural mechanism in the body that tackles this issue, which they are calling ARMD (axonal response of mitochondria to demyelination).

While researchers said this natural function alone does not provide enough energy to address demyelination in MS, its discovery raised the possibility of using a drug to enhance it.

But the team said that after further research they were able to enhance ARMD and protect the vulnerable nerves using the diabetes drug pioglitazone.

This is an incredibly important discovery – one we believe could finally bridge the gap in MS treatment
Dr Don Mahad

Lead author Dr Don Mahad said therapies to protect the nerve fibres were the 'Holy Grail' of MS treatment. The senior clinical lecturer at the University of Edinburgh added: “Disability in MS is caused by a loss of nerve fibres following damage to the myelin that protects them.

“Although our understanding of MS has vastly improved over the last two decades, new therapies still do not protect nerve fibres.

“Such protection is the Holy Grail in MS treatment – not only for the relapsing form of MS, which has various options available, but for progressive forms too, where treatment continues to lag behind.

“Remarkably, we were able to enhance ARMD and protect these vulnerable nerves using the readily available diabetes drug pioglitazone. This is an incredibly important discovery – one we believe could finally bridge the gap in MS treatment.”

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The MS Society said that more than 130,000 people in the UK live with the condition, which can be “relentless, painful and disabling”.

Dr Emma Gray, assistant director of research for the MS Society, said: “This represents another important stride towards our goal of stopping MS – and we believe that MS treatment could in the near future look completely different. It will mean no-one needs to worry about their MS getting worse.

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“Currently, there are no effective neuroprotective therapies available for MS, but Dr Mahad’s research demonstrates we are getting closer – and finding treatments for everyone with MS is now a very real prospect.”

Reader Q&A: Can the body self-repair nerve damage?

Asked by: Brian Shimell, Surrey

Up to a point. If the body of the neuron is still intact, the branches that extend out from the cell body can regrow at a rate of about 2cm per month. If the surrounding membrane of a nerve bundle is still intact, the neuron can grow along this, to its original target. But muscle cells left disconnected for too long won’t accept new nerve connections.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.