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Former Fellow may cure Multiple Sclerosis

09 Jun 2017

Former Fellow Dr Su Metcalfe may be on the verge of curing Multiple Sclerosis and significantly helping millions of sufferers of other auto-immune illnesses.

MS, an auto-immune condition which affects 2.3 million people around the world, attacks cells in the brain and the spinal cord, causing an array of physical and mental side effects including blindness and muscle weakness. At the moment there’s no cure, but Su and her company, LIFNano, hope to change that.

Su was working at the university’s department of surgery when she made her big breakthrough: “I was looking to see what controls the immune response and stops it auto-attacking us,” she explains. “I discovered a small binary switch, controlled by a stem cell particle called LIF, which regulates inside the immune cell itself. LIF is able to control the cell to ensure it doesn’t attack your own body but then releases the attack when needed.

“That LIF, in addition to regulating and protecting us against attack, also plays a major role in keeping the brain and spinal cord healthy. In fact it plays a major role in tissue repair generally, turning on stem cells that are naturally occurring in the body, making it a natural regenerative medicine, but also plays a big part in repairing the brain when it’s been damaged.”

“We can treat auto-immune disease, and we’ve got something to treat MS, which attacks both the brain and the spinal cord. So you have a double whammy that can stop and reverse the auto-immunity, and also repair the damage caused in the brain.” Unfortunately LIF could only survive outside the cell for 20 minutes before being broken down by the body, meaning there was not enough time to deploy it in a therapy. And this is where the technology, in the form of nano-particles, comes in. “They are made from the same material as soluble stitches, so they’re compatible with the body and they slowly dissolve,” says Su.

“We load the cargo of the LIF into those particles, which become the delivery device that slowly dissolve and deliver the LIF over five days. The nano-particle itself is a protective environment, and the enzymes that break it down can’t access it. You can also decorate the surface of the particles with antibodies, so it becomes a homing device that can target specific parts of the brain, for example. So you get the right dose, in the right place, and at the right time.”

The particles themselves were developed at Yale University, which is listed as co-inventor with Su on the IP. But LIFNano has the worldwide licence to deploy them, and Su believes we are on the verge of a step-change in medicine.

She says: “Nano-medicine is a new era, and big pharma has already entered this space to deliver drugs while trying to avoid the side effects. The quantum leap is to actually go into biologics and tap into the natural pathways of the body.”

“We’re not using any drugs, we’re simply switching on the body’s own systems of self-tolerance and repair. There aren’t any side effects because all we’re doing is tipping the balance. Auto-immunity happens when that balance has gone awry slightly, and we simply reset that. Once you’ve done that, it becomes self-sustaining and you don’t have to keep giving therapy, because the body has its balance back.”

LIFNano has already attracted two major funding awards, from drug firm Merck and the Government’s Innovate UK agency. Su herself is something of a novice when it comes to business, but has recruited cannily in the form of chairman Florian Kemmerich and ceo Oliver Jarry, both experienced operators in the pharma sector. With the support of the Judge, the company hopes to attract more investment, with the aim of starting clinical trials in 2020.

If it works, this therapy could revolutionise the treatment of all auto-immune conditions.