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Controlling Muscular Dystrophy With a 'Switch'

Sep 08, 2014 05:23 PM EDT
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Researchers are claiming to have found a way to trigger tissue repair in wasting muscles in patients suffering from muscular dystrophy. This could potentially revolutionize how doctors treat such conditions, which currently lack ways to slow the progression of muscle damage.
[Pictured: Normal muscle (left) VS muscle from Muscular Dystrophy (right).]
(Photo : Pathology)

Researchers are claiming to have found a way to trigger tissue repair in wasting muscles in patients suffering from muscular dystrophy. This could potentially revolutionize how doctors treat such conditions, which currently lack ways to slow the progression of muscle damage.

Muscular dystrophy is actually not just one illness, but a wide group of genetic diseases that cause gradual wasting of the muscle fibers. In most cases, it is caused by the regenerative properties of the muscles - associated with their adult stem cells - being hampered to such a degree that progressing damage cannot be mended.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no cure for these types of disease, but medications and therapy can help slow degradation.

However, now researchers have figured out how to not only slow degradation, but actually reverse some of the damage already done to muscle tissue, thanks to a technique that can actually jumpstarts tissue repair.

That's according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Medicine, which details how blocking a protein called signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) can actually promote the growth of muscle cells.

Interestingly, past research has shown that STAT3 is actually a good protein, playing an important role in skeletal muscle strength. However, while it promotes repair in some cases, new evidence indicates that it can interfere with repair in others.

In this latest study, researchers gave STAT3-inhibiting drugs to lab mice with muscular dystrophy, as well as mice that had normal muscle weakness due to aging.

"Our study found that by introducing an inhibitor of the STAT3 protein in repeated cycles, we could alternately replenish ... cells and promote their differentiation into muscle fibers," study author Alessandra Sacco explained in a statement.

The team then reapplied this process in to wasting human muscle cells, and were surprised to find the same effect. She goes on to add that the process must be strictly controlled, where timing the inhibition of the traditionally good protein is everything, almost like jiggling a troublesome on/off switch.

"These findings are very encouraging," added Vittorio Sartorelli, deputy scientific director at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. "Currently, there is no cure to stop or reverse any form of muscle-wasting disorders - only medication and therapy that can slow the process. This would be a very significant breakthrough."

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