Women are two to three times times more likely than men to develop multiple sclerosis, a debilitating autoimmune disease.
Until now, medical research has asked the question: “Why are women more likely to suffer from this disease?”
When this yielded no results, it was necessary to try a different tactic.
As Melissa Brown, professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says, “Now we are approaching this research from the opposite way, asking, ‘Why are males protected from disease?'”
“Understanding the mechanisms that limit disease in men can provide information that could be used in future therapy to block disease progression in women”.
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Like most laboratories that study the mouse model of MS, female mice were used in almost all experiments.
“When we induce the disease in this strain of female mice, virtually 100 percent of them get very sick,” Ms Brown said. “Male mice either get no disease or very little, so MS researchers typically use females in their studies”.
In a fortunate mistake by a graduate student, male mice pups were used in an experiment studying a genetic mutation that affected immune cells.
“It was an honest mistake, but the results were striking; the male mice with the mutation got very, very sick,” Brown said. “Because this strain of male mice never get very sick, I thought there was some sort of mistake, so I asked the student to repeat the experiment”.
When the results turned up the same, the team began looking more closely at how this particular genetic mutation behaved in males compared to females.
The finding, published in The Journal of Immunology, focuses on a type of white blood cell, the innate lymphoid cell, that exhibits different immune activities in males versus females. And it could just be the answer to unlocking the mystery of why females are more susceptible to MS.
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