Approximately 2.3 million people worldwide suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS). The disease develops when the nerves of the brain and the spinal cord are damaged by one’s own immune system. The ultimate result is paralysis, vision loss, and diminished brain function. Not only is MS physically and emotionally devastating, treatment comes with a hefty price tag. In the US, one year of therapy rings in at around $50,000.
Bringing a ray of hope to MS sufferers, clinical research has revealed that a tuberculosis vaccine may help prevent the development of MS in patients with early symptoms. It’s an exciting alternative therapy for the many patients unable to afford prohibitively pricey drugs.
How does the TB vaccine help MS patients?
Professionals in the field and students of pharmaceutical courses understand that vaccines typically contain a weakened quantity of live virus. A recent study investigated the effects of the TB vaccine virus on patients who exhibited early warning signs of MS. Researchers discovered that after 5 years, over 60% of them had not developed the disease, versus the control group of which only one third remained disease-free.
Amazingly, one single vaccine injection dramatically affected patients’ health 5 years after receiving the shot. It would seem that the vaccine “wakes up” the immune system, helping to steer the body’s killer cells away from the neurons it attacks in MS.
Limitations of the TB vaccine for MS patients
Although initial research results have been promising, the vaccine has been deemed unsafe for widespread use. For example, cases of TB across North America are few and far between, and the injection can result in infections. And because MS is typically treated with immune system suppressing medicines, which means that exposure to the tuberculosis could more easily result in infection.
Further research and pharmaceutical quality assurance testing is required before the TB vaccine can be used off-label to treat MS. Although the drug may help stop rogue cells from attacking the nervous system, it may also damage neurons. The vaccine may need important modifications before it can be recommended as a superior alternative to traditional formulas.
In addition, the size of studies conducted to test the effectiveness of the TB vaccine has been quite small. The researchers are uncertain about whether the vaccine will prove an effective treatment on its own, or if it required combination with other MS fighting drugs. And because MS is a life-long disease, patients would need repeated vaccine injections to control symptoms, and there is no research on how the ongoing exposure to live virus would impact their overall health.
Despite the unknowns, Dr. Denis Bourdette, a neurologist at the University of Portland acknowledges the exciting potential of TB vaccine, calling it an “important avenue of research that needs further pursuit.”
What is your opinion on the use of vaccines to treat autoimmune diseases?