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Amyloid, schmamyloid: Stanford MS expert finds dreaded proteins may not be all bad

I have to thank my colleague Bruce Goldman for taking some time off recently and leaving me to tackle a story that's normally in his territory of neurobiology. The research article he handed off is a fascinating extension of a biological plotline (subscription required) that Bruce first wrote about last August in Science Translational Medicine. The idea is that, although a particular protein called beta amyloid has for years been considered to be the smoking gun in Alzheimer's disease, a Stanford neurologist found that it's actually beneficial in animal models of multiple sclerosis.

Now, Science Translational Medicine has published the latest iteration of the researcher's work, showing that small pieces of several other amyloid-forming proteins can also relieve symptoms in mice with MS. From our release:

“What we’re finding is that, at least under certain circumstances, these amyloid peptides actually help the brain,” said Lawrence Steinman, MD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences and of pediatrics. “This really turns the ‘amyloid-is-bad’ dogma upside down. It will require a shift in people’s fundamental beliefs about neurodegeneration and diseases like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

[...] Taken together, the studies begin to suggest the radical new idea that full-length, amyloid-forming proteins may in fact be produced by the body as a protective, rather than destructive, force. In particular, Steinman’s study shows that these proteins may function as molecular chaperones, escorting and removing from sites of injury specific molecules involved in inflammation and inappropriate immune responses.

This remarkable rehabilitation of the black sheep of neurobiology was great fun to write, and could change how neurobiologists think about and attempt to treat neurodegeneration. For example, it's possible that therapies aimed at removing all amyloid-forming proteins from the body may hinder, rather than help, attempts to treat a patient's symptoms.

Steinman is currently scheduled (barring other breaking news) to speak about his findings on April 5 (around noon Pacific time) with Ira Flatow, the host of NPR's popular Science Friday program. I'm sure Bruce and I will both be tuning in to hear more about this fascinating story. We may have to duke it out, though, when it comes to writing the next press release about Steinman's research...

Previously: Black hat in Alzheimer's, white hat in multiple sclerosis?, Brain sponge: Stroke treatment may extend time to treat brain damage and Stanford neuroimmunologist discusses recent advances in MS research
Photo of Lawrence Steinman by Steve Fisch

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