A dietary supplement similar to glucosamine appears to suppress the damaging autoimmune response seen in multiple sclerosis (MS) attacks, raising hopes of a new metabolic therapy for autoimmune diseases. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in the US found that oral N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) stopped abnormal T-cells from growing and working properly: in people with MS, these abnormal cells incorrectly tell the immune system to destroy the tissue that insulates the nerves. You can read a scientific paper about their study in the 29 September online issue of Journal of Biological Chemistry.

N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) is similar to but more effective than the widely available glucosamine.

Senior investigator and neurologist Dr Michael Demetriou is associate professor of neurology and microbiology & molecular genetics at UCI and also associate director of the university’s Multiple Sclerosis Research Center. He told the media:

“This sugar-based supplement corrects a genetic defect that induces cells to attack the body in MS.”

He said this could lead to a metabolic therapy that is very different to current treatments.

Earlier this year, he and his colleagues discovered that previously unconnected and poorly understood environmental and inherited risk factors for MS work together to add certain sugars to proteins that affect the disease.

Proteins are the workhorses of cells: and they receive their instructions via complex sugar molecules of various sizes and chemical make-up.

Recent research has found that changes to these sugars may be involved in what makes immune system T-cells become hyperactive in autoimmune diseases, resulting in a destruction of the tissue that protects the nerve fibers and stops the electrical impulses from leaking out.

For their study, Demetriou and colleagues used lab mice bred to have an MS-like autoimmune disease. They gave the mice oral GlcNAc and found that those whose legs had become weak from the disease showed a reversion of the progression to paralysis.

They write in their paper the treatment suppressed T-cell hyperactivity and autoimmune response by increasing sugar modifications to the T-cell proteins:

“Oral treatment of mice with the sugar N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) enhances N-glycosylation, suppressing inflammatory T cell responses and an MS like disease when initiated after disease onset.”

Recent studies by other researchers have also been looking at the potential of GlcNAc in humans. One reported that of 12 children with with treatment-resistant autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease who were given the supplement for two years, eight showed significant improvement and no serious adverse side effects were observed.

Demetriou said when you bring these findings together you can see there is potential for using dietary supplements such as GlcNAc as a metabolic therapy for autoimmune diseases.

He said people are getting excited about this new approach because it uses a novel mechanism to address T-cell function and autoimmunity and target a molecular defect that promotes disease. Moreover, it is readily available and simple.

But we still need more studies on human volunteers to assess the full potential of such an approach, cautioned Demetriou.

Although you can get GlcNAc supplements without a prescription, you should consult with your doctor before using it, he added.

Funds from the National Institutes of Health and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the US helped pay for the study.

Written by Catharine Paddock