Hello, and welcome to Episode Forty-Six of Multiple Sclerosis Discovery, the podcast of the MS Discovery Forum. I’m your host, Dan Keller.
This week’s podcast features the first part of a two-part interview with Dr. Hans Lassmann, who discusses biomarkers in multiple sclerosis. But first, here are some of the new items in the MS Discovery Forum.
According to our curated list of the latest scientific articles related to MS, 61 such articles were published last week. To see the list, go to msdiscovery.org and click on Papers. We selected two of those papers as Editors’ Picks. One, on the prevalence of pain in MS, found that around two-thirds of MS patients experience pain, and this symptom is associated with disability, depression, and especially anxiety. The other editor’s pick is a study of a toxin produced by Clostridium perfringens, a common bacterium often found in the gut that produces an MS-like disease in sheep. This epsilon toxin selectively kills oligodendrocytes while preserving all other neural elements.
Our Drug-Development Pipeline includes continually updated information on 44 investigational agents for MS. During the past week we added 2 new trials and 5 other pieces of information. The drugs with important additions are dalfampridine, dimethyl fumarate, and fingolimod. To find information on all 44 compounds, visit msdiscovery.org and click first on Research Resources and then on Drug-Development Pipeline
Now to the interview. Dr. Hans Lassmann of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, is one of the most prolific and highly respected MS researchers in the world. In this first part of a two part interview, Dr. Lassmann discusses biomarkers in MS and related conditions such as neuromyelitis optica and how the two conditions may differ important for therapy.
Interviewer – Dan Keller
Let’s talk about new markers in MS or differentiating conditions from MS. What’s coming along, and what do we know now?
Interviewee – Hans Lassmann
Well, there has been a very important development during the last years. And this was the technical development of assays which can really identify pathogenic autoantibodies which can modify the inflammatory process in the central nervous system. The major trick behind was that these assays are, in essence, based on cells which are transfected with the respective antigen, and so they express the respective antigen on the surface of the cell. And one can now identify those autoantibodies which really bind to the surface of the cell and are pathogenic, in comparison to those antibodies which recognize epitopes, for instance, within the cells, which cannot be reached by the antibodies in the in vivo situation, and which, therefore, are not pathogenic.
Can you give me some examples of these kinds of antibodies?
So the first antibody which was the antibody against aquaporin 4, which has been shown to be associated with neuromyelitis optica, at least with a large fraction of patients with neuromyelitis optica. And this antibody then was very well characterized, and it turned out that it is directed against aquaporin 4, which is a water channel in astrocytes. And when patients have these antibodies on the background of an inflammatory disease in the central nervous system, these antibodies can reach their astrocytic targets and destroy the astrocytes, which then leads to secondary demyelination and neurodegeneration.
Having these antibodies, it was then possible to define the clinical spectrum of the disease, and it turned out that it is very strictly associated with neuromyelitis optica, but that the spectrum of the disease is broader than only affecting the spinal cord and the optic nerve. So these patients actually have also lesions in other regions of the brain. But they are still different from those lesions which you see multiple sclerosis.
It was then also possible to define the clinical spectrum of the disease. And, again, differences to multiple sclerosis became very clear. And, finally, it was also possible to then look in these patients with these aquaporin 4 antibodies how they respond to the current treatment strategies which have been established for multiple sclerosis. And it turned out that several of the key therapies for multiple sclerosis, including interferons but also natalizumab or fingolimod, can actually make the disease worse in patients with neuromyelitis optica.
So that was the first example that a disease which has originally been defined as a disease in the spectrum of multiple sclerosis has emerged as a separate and distinguishable disease which requires also different treatment in the patients.
It seems like neuromyelitis optica has components of autoimmune disease. So why do these compounds that work in MS potentially make the condition worse in NMO?
This is currently not yet clear. One possibility is that the action of pathogenic antibodies makes the difference. The immune mechanisms are certainly different in a purely T-cell mediated disease, in comparison to disease which is mediated by a combination of T-cells and antibodies. And that could possibly explain why differences are seen.
There is another possibility is that some of these drugs actually stimulate the B-cell response or increase the B-cell response in the peripheral blood, and with that possibly also the antibody response. So, in that case, the T-cell mediated inflammation would be suppressed, but the antibody-mediated effects would be enhanced. And that could certainly also play a role. But these are, at the present moment, not proven.
But even in MS there’s evidence for B-cell trafficking and B-cell participation, but it seems to be less important or am I off base?
No, this is a very interesting question. There is clearly a B-cell component in multiple sclerosis, and it has also been shown that depleting B-cells, for instance, with an antibody against CD20 can actually have a very good therapeutic effect in multiple sclerosis. However, we have to keep in mind that B-cells not only produce antibodies, but they have also other immunological functions. So one function, for instance, is that they help the T-cells, for instance, by very efficient antigen presentation. So by eliminating B-cells, you get also a decrease of the T-cell response. But this is not only one possibility. There are other possibilities that B-lymphocytes actually can also produce cytokines – proinflammatory cytokines – which may directly act on the tissue and damage the tissue independent from antibodies.
Getting back to NMO, if someone tests negative for antibody, but has clinical signs, does that rule out NMO or are you just not detecting antibodies or is it always required or not?
So it rules out an aquaporin 4 antibody associated form of NMO, but a fraction of NMO patients – it’s around between 10 and 20% – which have a clinical presentation of NMO, but have no antibodies against aquaporin 4. There is currently very much effort to define what is the mechanism in these patients. And it turned out that a fraction of these aquaporin 4 antibody-negative NMO patients actually have antibodies against myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein.
And this leads, actually now, to a second type of disease which can be separated from multiple sclerosis. These are patients with high titers of pathogenic antibodies against myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein. Now, again, these patients, when you look at them at pathology, you would clearly define the disease as multiple sclerosis because they have inflammation, and they have very selective primary demyelination. And this is different from what you see in NMO where the astrocyte pathology is the earliest event. But in those patients with the MOG antibodies, its demyelination sort of hallmark, actually, of multiple sclerosis…of the disease process in multiple sclerosis.
However, when you now analyze these patients with mock antibodies, clinically you see that the clinical presentation is different from the classical presentation of multiple sclerosis patients. These antibodies are, for instance, frequent in children with inflammatory demyelinating disease of a spectrum of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis or relapsing disseminated encephalomyelitis or even patients with a disease similar to relapsing, remitting multiple sclerosis. This is in children.
In adults, you find these antibodies in a fraction of NMO patients. But there are also other patients who have a disease which is more similar to what is seen in multiple sclerosis, with the exception that they have relatively large and aggressive lesions, and also that they have, relatively frequently, lesions in the brain stem such as, for instance, the pons or the medulla oblongata. And, again, it seems to be that here a new disease entity appears which can be separated from multiple sclerosis.
Regarding therapy of these patients, we don’t have yet the data which we need to have. It can be speculated that the therapeutic response may possibly be more similar to those patients with NMO in comparison to the classical MS patients, but to know that we would have to have much larger cohorts of patients who have been treated with the different regimes.
Do some of these do worse on the typical MS treatments such as natalizumab or fingolimod?
These data currently are not yet existing. It’s also because, due to these possible problems related to NMO, generally now, patients with mock-antibody-associated diseases are more likely to be treated with global immunosuppression or with rituximab, so the anti-CD20 antibody. And clinicians are very reluctant to use these therapies which have been shown to make disease worse in NMO in these mock patients. So we don’t have the data, currently.
Are there separate etiologies, does it look like here, the MOG versus classical MS?
This comes to the important question about the etiology of MS in general. We have to admit that we don’t know what is the real etiology of multiple sclerosis. It is thought to be an autoimmune disease, but this is not finally proven. It may also be associated with infections – Epstein-Barr virus infection is, for instance, one possible example. And there are certainly other theories also, which discuss completely different mechanisms of disease pathogenesis in multiple sclerosis. It is clearly that all these diseases, including NMO, mock antibody associated disease, and MS are chronic inflammatory diseases. But what drives the inflammation is currently not yet known.
Is it possible there’s an initial insult to oligodendrocytes which then sort of precipitate a chain reaction cascade?
This is also one of the theories which is put forward, but one has to say that with a bit caution, because there are experimental models where you can actually destroy oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system which do not lead to an autoimmune disease which is somehow related or similar to multiple sclerosis.
Anything interesting or important to add on the subject, in this context?
I think what is now of interesting new research line is to search for additional autoantibodies in the population of multiple sclerosis patients. There are indications from pathology that there are certainly more patients who may have pathogenic autoantibodies, in comparison to those patients which now can be identified as NMO or mock-autoantibody-associated disease. There is a relatively recent study suggesting that another channel, a potassium channel on oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, the KIR4.1 channel, may also be a target for pathogenic autoantibodies in multiple sclerosis. Here, however, we are still in the very early stage because the test systems are not yet fully reproducible. And we will see in the future whether this antibody association with the KIR4.1 antibody really holds true in MS patients. And if that’s the case, what patients are they and whether they differ in any way in their clinical presentation or also response to therapy.
Is there a way to survey patients and essentially see what commonalities they have in antibody reactivity, and zero in on it that way, looking at a wide array of antibodies in various patients and seeing if they have reactivities in common?
I think this is valid as a second step. But there is another alternative strategy which is now very well established also for other diseases, including paraneoplastic diseases or other autoimmune diseases. In that case, one can actually take the sera of the patients, and there are now new technologies developed where you can put these sera, for instance, on brain sections – normal brain sections – of either humans or animals and test whether they bind to specific structures.
This has been tried for nearly 30 years now, but only recently, new technologies became available which make that in a much more specific way. And this has been very successful in identifying new diseases which are associated with antibodies against a variety of neurotransmitter receptors or ion channels. So they certainly, in general, have not the spectrum of multiple sclerosis. They may have epilepsy. They may have psychosis. They may have motor neuron diseases, other things. But, on the other hand, the same technique can also be used to identify in multiple sclerosis patients whether some of them have actually antibodies which bind to brain tissue. And when that is established, one can actually then isolate the specific protein with the antibodies out of the brain tissue, and then, with modern molecular biology technology, can identify the antigen.
This is a strategy which has very nicely and very successfully shown for other diseases. And this was also, in principle, the strategy how people found evidence for these, for instance, KIR4.1 antibodies and also for the NMO antibodies.
Finally, do you envision being able to develop specific treatments if you find out specific autoantibodies or causes of some of these conditions?
It may very well be. I think there are two dimensions on that. The one dimension is that such patients have pathogenic autoantibodies, and that certainly will have implications for therapy. That means that you will try to block the pathogenic action of the antibodies in general. In that case, it doesn’t make a difference whether the antibody is now directed against a neuron or against an astrocyte or against an oligodendrocyte. And this is a strategy which is actually now already approached in many different conditions, and neuromyelitis optica certainly is a disease where this is relatively advanced in this respect.
Now, the other possibility would be to try to find therapies which are then counteracting specifically the destruction of the particular cells which contain the antigen. So it can very well be that, for instance, an antibody against a neurotransmitter receptor will have a different implication on neuronal function, in comparison to an antibody against an astrocyte or an oligodendrocyte. Here, if these are just blocking antibodies and not antibodies which destroy the tissue, one can actually then try also symptomatic therapies with interfering with these channels directly.
Is there any thought towards trying to induce tolerance or clonal deletion of the pathogenic clones?
This is obviously the dream of immunologists, and it would be extremely attractive. And it works extremely well in inbred mouse models with a very well-defined disease induction process. The strategy is very dangerous in a genetically heterogeneous population and also in a disease process which may be induced by different mechanisms. So, in that case, the big danger is that this tolerizing strategy in certain patients, for instance, with a certain histocompatibility genetics, actually is counterproductive and increases the immune response. And this is actually a problem which is very, very difficult to solve, in the aim of translating this mouse data into humans.
Thank you for listening to Episode Forty-six of Multiple Sclerosis Discovery. This podcast was produced by the MS Discovery Forum, MSDF, the premier source of independent news and information on MS research. MSDF’s executive editor is Robert Finn. Msdiscovery.org is part of the non-profit Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis. Robert McBurney is our President and CEO, and Hollie Schmidt is vice president of scientific operations.
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