The findings have been published in the prestigious journal Brain from Oxford University Press.
The study was led by Dr Steven Petratos from RMIT’s School of Medical Sciences and the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories.
MS, a chronic neurologic disease that affects up to 20,000 Australians, is thought to be caused by the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacking the brain, spinal cord or optic nerves.
The primary target of this attack is myelin, the protective coating around the nerve fibres, which carry nerve impulses between nerve cells. These attacks cause active MS lesions and the nerve cells themselves can also be damaged.
The research team headed by Dr Petratos has shown a modified version of a specific protein is present within active MS lesions in a laboratory model of MS.
This modified protein interacts with another protein to cause nerve fibre damage but, when the scientists blocked either the modification or the interaction between the two proteins, the progression of the disease was halted.
Dr Petratos said the particular method used to form the block has already been approved for the treatment of other disease conditions by the US Food and Drug Administration and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.
“This should mean that clinical trials – once they start – will be fast tracked, as the form of administration has already been approved,” he said.
The research was conducted in collaboration with scientists from the University of Toronto and Yale University in the US, with major funding from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of the United States of America and partial funding from MS Research Australia.
“This is a great step forward in providing better treatments for MS and hope for people with the disease,” Jeremy Wright, CEO of MS Research Australia, said.
“We are very pleased to be involved via funding this project.”
The publication of the discovery comes as Australians are asked to Kiss Goodbye to MS in many events leading up to World MS Day on 30 May.
MS tends to strike early in adulthood, with women three times more likely than men to be diagnosed.
About 1,000 new diagnoses of MS are made each year in Australia, with the total cost of the disease to the community estimated at $1 billion annually.