NUS finding could be boon for multiple sclerosis, stroke patients

Li Ka Shing Building on NUS (National University of Singapore) Bukit Timah campus.
Li Ka Shing Building on NUS (National University of Singapore) Bukit Timah campus. PHOTO: ST FILE

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have made a discovery that could alter the treatment of conditions such as multiple sclerosis and stroke, as well as some of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, to name a few.

They have found a protein that plays a key role in controlling the level of immune cells and the strength of blood vessels in the body.

When too many immune cells are produced, a surplus can result in them attacking other cells in the body. This is what happens in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Scientists have known for a while that a compound in the body, sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P), directs the movement of the cells that support the body's immunity and protect blood vessels.

The ability to lower levels of S1P, for those with high levels of it, results in fewer immune cells being produced, such as T and B cells, so there is no harmful excess.

There are drugs available that do this, but they have side effects, including a reduced heartbeat.

The NUS scientists have, however, discovered a new target - the vehicle that drives S1P around the body, a protein they have called Mfsd2b. This breakthrough will shed light on new ways researchers can control S1P in the body.

By increasing Mfsd2b, people with lower levels of S1P could have more of it sent through the blood, protecting blood vessels, something that could assist patients with vascular diseases. This will also be helpful for patients going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy who often suffer a low blood count because of their treatment.

Said Assistant Professor Nguyen Nam Long of the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's department of biochemistry: "I hope that we can use this discovery to develop drugs that will treat inflammatory diseases and therapeutics for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases and cancer patients."

The three-year effort was guided primarily by Prof Long and published in the prestigious journal Nature.

Professor Markus Wenk, head of the department of biochemistry at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said: "We have now identified a new target for treating such diseases."

By increasing Mfsd2b, people with lower levels of S1P could have more of it sent through the blood, protecting blood vessels, something that could assist patients with vascular diseases.

This will also be helpful for patients going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy who often suffer a low blood count because of their treatment. S1P is needed for more blood cells, explained Prof Long.

Commenting on the effort, Dr Kenneth Ng, a consultant cardiologist at Novena Heart Centre, said: "This is probably quite basic research; now they need to move it into a clinical environment.

"We can prevent only 30 per cent of cardiovascular disease; there's still 70 per cent we don't understand right now. This discovery could help fill the gaps."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2017, with the headline 'NUS finding could be boon for multiple sclerosis, stroke patients'. Print Edition | Subscribe