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Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute have developed the first of a new class of highly selective compounds that effectively suppresses the severity of multiple sclerosis in animal models. The new compound could provide new and potentially more effective therapeutic approaches to multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases that affect patients worldwide. The study appeared April 17, 2011, in an advance online edition of the journal Nature.

“This is a novel drug that works effectively in animal models with few side effects,” said Tom Burris, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics at Scripps Florida who led the study, which was a multidisciplinary collaboration with scientists including Patrick Griffin, William Roush, and Ted Kamenecka of Scripps Research, and Paul Drew of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “We have been involved in several discussions with both pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms who are very interested in developing it further.”

For the past several years, Burris and his colleagues have been investigating small-molecule compounds that affect particular disease-related receptors (structures that bind other molecules, triggering some effect on the cell). In particular, the scientists have been interested in a pair of “orphan nuclear receptors” (receptors with no known natural binding partner) called RORα and RORγ involved in both autoimmune and metabolic diseases.

These particular receptors play a critical role in the development of TH17 cells, a form of T helper cells that make up part of the immune system. A relatively new discovery, TH17 cells have been implicated in the pathology of numerous autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and lupus. TH17 cells produce Interleukin-17, a natural molecule that can induce inflammation, a characteristic of autoimmunity.

“If you eliminate TH17 cell signals, you basically eliminate the disease in animal models,” Burris said. “Our compound is the first small-molecule orally active drug that targets this specific cell type and shuts it down. Once SR1001 is optimized, chances are it will be far more potent and effective.”

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