'Trojan horse' treatment for MS shows promising results in lab tests

A University of Regina researcher is showing how a 'Trojan horse' protein may be key to correcting multiple sclerosis and is already having positive results with mice in the lab.

A University of Regina researcher believes 3 proteins may be key to treating multiple sclerosis

Josef Buttigieg, left, and his team including Karin Rustad, centre, and Alex Ripplinger, are developing a 'Trojan horse' treatment for multiple sclerosis. (Submitted by Karin Rustad)

Researcher Josef Buttigieg has always been interested in how the nervous system works, but when it comes to multiple sclerosis, it's personal. 

Buttigieg has several friends with the disease and has seen first hand what it can do to people. That's part of what makes his latest research at the University of Regina important for him, he said. They're trying to develop a "Trojan horse" against multiple sclerosis, and have promising results from early lab trials. 

MS is an autoimmune disease in which a person's immune system begins to think their own body is a foreign substance and starts to destroy it. Specifically, the disease attacks myelin, an insulating layer or sheath that forms around nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. This sheath allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells.

"The end result of destroying that insulation is that it causes your neurons to short circuit and then that leads to paralysis," Buttigieg said. "And unfortunately for many people, leads to eventual death."

The Trojan horse idea originally started with a story. 

"I love history — what happens with the story of Troy is the Athenians are attacking the Trojans, they give the Trojans what they want, which is basically a horse statue and what the Trojans don't know is that there is a couple Athenians hiding inside."

The Trojans bring the statue in. The Athenians destroy the gates and the city of Troy falls. 

What Buttigieg has developed is similar in concept. Multiple sclerosis looks for a specific protein that's in the insulation of a person's neurons. So Buttigieg's team gave the immune system of a mouse that protein — with a twist. 

Tied to the protein are two others, one of which kills the immune cell that is attacking the myelin. 

This mouse with multiple sclerosis could not move its hind legs or tail and had only partial movements of its front legs before beginning treatment in Josef Buttigieg's lab. (Josef Buttigieg/Facebook)
Four days after the above photograph was taken, the mouse could fully walk with all four legs after being treated with the 'Trojan Horse' method in Buttigieg's lab. (Josef Buttigieg/Facebook)

"So just like with a story of a Trojan horse, we're giving it what it wants but what it doesn't know is that there's a bomb hiding inside this protein," he said. "Once you eliminate the cause of the problem it gives the body an opportunity to repair itself."

Many current treatments only treat the symptoms, he said, making the person more comfortable and life more bearable, whereas his treatment would target the disease itself. This is important in Saskatchewan especially as it's a "hotbed" of multiple sclerosis, Buttigieg said. 

An cross-section showing an untreated neuron from Josef Buttigieg's lab where the myelin has been slowly taken away. (Submitted by Karin Rustad)
After treatment, Josef Buttigieg's team can see that the myelin sheath of a neuron has been repaired. (Submitted by Karin Rustad)

Buttigieg and his team started the project in August 2018, and have been repeating it several times to make sure their results are the same each time. 

So far they've been treating mice with multiple sclerosis through this method. Within a few weeks the mice have been starting to walk again after being in the severe stages of multiple sclerosis. It seems to be correcting the disease, he said. 

The team has also observed that the tissue of the mice is starting to heal itself, and under a microscope can see that the immune cells that were attacking the body are gone.

I have a bit of a personal vendetta when it comes to M.S. — So I want to see this get accelerated as soon as possible.- Josef Buttigieg

After the promising results, Buttigieg hopes to have a clinical trial soon. First, they plan to test the treatment on patient's blood. People who have multiple sclerosis have donated blood for them to see how the immune system in the blood reacts to the proteins. 

Buttigieg said his "dream time" to start clinical trials would be tomorrow. But that depends on a number of things, he said, including support from the public, support from the government, and funding. 

"Now I have a bit of a personal vendetta when it comes to M.S. — So I want to see this get accelerated as soon as possible."


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