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New therapy could battle autoimmune diseases

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ATLANTA -

We count on our body's immune system to protect us against the cold viruses and stomach bugs making the rounds, but with multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases, something goes wrong and the immune system begins to attack things it shouldn't.
     
Researchers at Shepherd Center are testing a new therapy that might be able to stop that process.

It's not a drug. Instead, it's a treatment that involves taking the patient's own immune cells, tweaking them in a lab and then re-injecting them to try to get the patient's immune system back on track.
   
For Linda Agnello, music and teaching come easily. But at 56, multiple sclerosis has made doing her job as music teacher at Forsyth County's Midway Elementary School a lot more difficult. Some days, it's hard for her to balance, hard to walk -- hard to function.
     
"There's a thing called muscle fiber fatigue that is a tiredness like you've never had," She said. "I have to monitor how much I work, I can't blow it all out. I can't give as much to my job and to my kids as I wish I could, I have to kind of monitor myself now."

At Shepherd Center's MS clinic, neurologist and director Dr. Ben Thrower says MS kicks the body's immune system into overdrive.

In Linda's case, instead of defending her from germs, her immune system is attacking and damaging the myelin, the protective coating around nerve fibers in her brain and spinal cord.

But Shepherd Center is studying a new treatment for progressive MS that tweaks a patient's own immune system to stop that damage, zeroing in on a type of immune cells known as "t-cells."
    
"We think t-cells play a large role in multiple sclerosis," said Thrower. "In MS, the immune system is overactive, it's picking on something that it shouldn't be picking on."

The therapy is called Tcelna. The patient gives a blood sample, and then the t-cells are isolated and multiplied.
    
"They're going to clone them, so that you've got a whole bunch of them," Thrower said. "Now, we need to weaken those t-cells a little bit.  So, they're going to irradiate them.  Not to try to kill them, but to just stun them. We want to weaken them."

Once the t-cells are disarmed, they're re-injected.   

"Their immune system now is going to recognize those bad t-cells as being weakened and make an immune response to that," said Thrower. "So really you're teaching your own immune system to take care of those bad t-cells every time they pop up."

Because Tcelna uses the patient's own cells, Thrower says the risk of complications is low.  But there are still questions.

"What we need to know now is: Does it work?  Does it work in a large group of individuals and are there any safety concerns that we didn't see in previous trials?"

Linda is hopeful about this treatment. In a lot of ways, she feels lucky for her music, for her family and for the chance to do what she loves.

"I don't really want anything else to go away.  I don't want MS to take anything else from me than it already has," said Agnello.

Shepherd Center is enrolling patients with secondary progressive MS in this research study. Those are patients whose symptoms have worsened in the past two years.

Participants will receive a series of five treatments over about a year.

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