Harnessing the Immune System for Neuroprotection: Therapeutic Vaccines for Acute and Chronic Neurodegenerative Disorders
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Nerve injury causes degeneration of directly injured neurons and the damage spreads to neighboring neurons. Research on containing the damage has been mainly pharmacological, and has not recruited the immune system. We recently discovered that after traumatic injury to the central nervous system (spinal cord or optic nerve), the immune system apparently recognizes certain injury-associated self-compounds as potentially destructive and comes to the rescue with a protective antiself response mediated by a T-cell subpopulation that can recognize self-antigens. We further showed that individuals differ in their ability to manifest this protective autoimmunity, which is correlated with their ability to resist the development of autoimmune diseases. This finding led us to suggest that the antiself response must be tightly regulated to be expressed in a beneficial rather than a destructive way. In seeking to develop a neuroprotective therapy by boosting the beneficial autoimmune response to injury-associated self-antigens, we looked for an antigen that would not induce an autoimmune disease. Candidate vaccines were the safe synthetic copolymer Cop-1, known to cross-react with self-antigens, or altered myelin-derived peptides. Using these compounds as vaccines, we could safely boost the protective autoimmune response in animal models of acute and chronic insults of mechanical or biochemical origin. Since this vaccination is effective even when given after the insult, and because it protects against the toxicity of glutamate (the most common mediator of secondary degeneration), it can be used to treat chronic neurodegenerative disorders such as glaucoma, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
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