Small Molecule Shows Ability to Limit Autoimmune Response in MS, Mouse Study Reports

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by Jonathan Grinstein |

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A small molecule called Sephin1 may be able to significantly delay harm to neurons in multiple sclerosis (MS) by protecting oligodendrocytes, limiting the autoimmune response, a mouse study reports.

The study, “Sephin1, which prolongs the integrated stress response, is a promising therapeutic for multiple sclerosis,” was published in the journal Brain.

MS is thought to be caused by immune-mediated inflammation that damages the myelin — an insulating sheath around nerve cells. For this reason, current MS disease-modifying treatments focus on immune-mediated inflammation. Although these treatments moderate disease relapses, their impact on disease progression is unclear.

Previous studies have demonstrated that oligodendrocytes — cells that produce myelin — are critical in protecting against neuron demyelination and axon (nerve fiber) damage. As a result, researchers have been keen to develop alternative therapeutic approaches that protect oligodendrocytes, and ultimately limit disease progression. 

A signaling pathway called integrated stress response that acts as a natural defense system to protect cells has been shown to reduce the inflammatory impact on oligodendrocytes. This response is triggered by phosphorylation (a chemical reaction) of a protein called eukaryotic initiation factor 2 alpha (eIF2α), and reduces the total production of proteins, instead promoting the synthesis of protective proteins in the cells.

Conversely, the integrated stress response can be cut off by dephosphorylation of eIF2α. Sephin1 was shown to inhibit the dephosphorylation of eIF2α, prolonging the protective response.

In this study, researchers at the University of Chicago proposed that Sephin1, by producing this response, could protect oligodendrocytes and slow the progress of the disease. The team tested their hypothesis in a mouse model called experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), which is similar to MS in humans.

Results showed that treatment with Sephin1 did inhibit eIF2α dephosphorylation in EAE mice, triggering a protective response against inflammation. More importantly, myelin-producing oligodendrocytes were also protected, and disease onset was significantly delayed.

This correlated with diminished oligodendrocyte loss, protected neuronal axons and myelin, and prolonged integrated stress response. In addition, Sephin1 decreased the levels of inflammatory immune T-cells, and the production of inflammatory signals within the central nervous system.

“By protecting oligodendrocytes and diminishing demyelination, we also reduce the generation of myelin debris,”  Brian Popko, PhD, the study’s senior author, said in a press release. “The decreased exposure to myelin fragments should also limit the auto-immune response.” Popko is the Jack Miller professor of neurological disorders, and director of the Center for Peripheral Neuropathy at the University of Chicago.

The effects of Sephin1 were also combined with interferon-beta treatment — an anti-inflammatory first-line MS therapy. Researchers found that the combination was more effective than the therapies given separately.

“Encouragingly, adding Sephin1 to the established anti-inflammatory MS drug interferon beta provided additive benefits to the mouse MS model,” said study co-author Yanan Chen, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Popko laboratory.

The team concluded that the results “suggest that a neuroprotective treatment based on the enhancement of the integrated stress response would likely have significant therapeutic value for multiple sclerosis patients.”

Treatment with Sephin1, they say, “could lead to a better clinical outcome in multiple sclerosis patients as a safe neuroprotective drug, perhaps when used in combination with immune-modulatory therapies.”

Sephin1 has been patented and licensed to InFlectis BioScience, a French biotech company.

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