Multiple sclerosis (MS) could be stopped with a range of treatments scientists say could be tested in late stage trials within six years, a charity has said.
The announcement comes from the Multiple Sclerosis Society following a series of scientific discoveries.
The studies have led research leaders to believe treatments that stop disability progression, and potentially prevent the need for a wheelchair in the future, are within grasp.
Such treatments have eluded scientists for decades, but a new paper published in Cell Stem Cell is the first to suggest myelin damage can be repaired, one of three things needed to stop MS.
The MS Society funded research indicates alternate day fasting, and the fasting mimetic drug metformin, already used worldwide to treat diabetes, could be the answer to stopping MS, through its ability to restore cells to a younger, healthier state.
Studying rats, researchers at the MS Society Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair at the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute found the drug was able to return cells to a “more youthful state”.
They also found it could encourage the re-growth of myelin, the fatty sheath that surrounds our nerves, which is damaged in MS.
Myelin regenerative treatments are considered essential to stop disease progression in MS.
Scientists discovered the reduced regenerative capacity of stem cells, in people with progressive forms of MS, is down to things that happen to everyone as we age, including reduced metabolic function and increased DNA damage.
Researchers found both fasting and treatment with metformin could reverse these changes, and restore the regenerative capacity of the cells, which are responsible for making myelin in the body.
The research was led by Professor Robin Franklin, director of the MS Society Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair, and Dr Bjorn Neumann.
Prof Franklin said: “This is the one of the most significant advances in myelin repair therapies there has ever been.
“The findings shed light on why cells lose their ability to regenerate myelin, and how this process might be reversed.
“Although research so far has been done in rats, we hope to move it forward into humans soon.
“MS is relentless, painful, and disabling, and, while it’s early days, this discovery could lead us to vital new treatment targets for progressive forms of the condition.”
Supported by experts, the MS Society is launching a major appeal to raise £100 million over a 10-year period, to accelerate new research.
Professor Alan Thompson, consultant neurologist and chairman at the International Progressive MS Alliance, said: “In the past decade we’ve made significant progress in treating MS, but there remains a huge unmet need in developing treatments for the progressive form of the condition.
“Now, for the first time, the international research community has come together and is aligned on what needs to be done to stop the condition.
“With a dramatic increase in investment, we could genuinely change people’s lives.”
More than 100,000 people in the UK live with MS, which damages nerves in the body and makes it harder to do everyday things like walk, talk, eat and think.
Current treatments only work on one aspect of MS, the immune system, and only help people with relapsing MS.
This means as a person’s condition progresses there is nothing to stop them becoming more disabled.
Nick Moberly, chief executive at the MS Society, said: “Research has got us to a critical point, and we can see a future where nobody needs to worry about MS getting worse.
“That means not living in fear you’ll be reliant on a wheelchair, or one day lose your independence entirely.
“The worldwide MS community is coming together to help us achieve our ambitious goal to stop MS.
“But we need to act now, because people with MS can’t wait.”
The charity says we could now expect to see a range of treatments for everyone with MS in late stage trials by as early as 2025.