Common Plant Component Shows Potential as MS Treatment

By Lois Baker

Release Date: April 17, 2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Plant sterols, known to help reduce high cholesterol, also may be effective in treating the effects of multiple sclerosis (MS), novel research by University at Buffalo investigators has shown.

The study, lead by Forum M. Desai, a student in the UB Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, has shown that Beta-sitosterol, a compound found in most vegetables and fruits, can reduce secretion of several proinflammatory factors known to be involved in damage to the brain's myelin.

Results were presented April 16 during a poster session at the 2008 American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Chicago. The Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences is part of the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Myelin is the fatty sheath that protects nerve fibers carrying message traffic from various muscles to and from the central nervous system. Damage to myelin results in destruction of those nerve fibers and induces the symptoms of MS.

The study compared the effectiveness of B-sitosterol with that of simvastatin, a cholesterol drug gaining acceptance as an MS drug because it has been shown to reduce symptoms and can be taken orally, while most other MS drugs must be injected. However, using simvastatin frequently causes muscle pain and other side effects.

"There have been some studies showing the positive effect of statins on the immune system," said Desai, "but because statins have many side effects, they are not used readily for MS patients. Since statins and beta-sitosterol share the same function of lowering cholesterol, we decided to see if phytosterols also can influence cytokine release in MS patients." Cytokines are proteins that cause or suppress inflammation.

The research targeted peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), a critical component of the immune system, in blood samples collected from 11 untreated MS patients and seven controls. A standard product was used to induce the cells to release pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, which then were measured after treatment with simvastatin and sitosterol.

Results showed that B-sitosterol performed better than simvastatin in reducing the release of the proinflammatory cytokine known as IL-12 in MS patients and in increasing release of anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 in healthy subjects.

However, simvastatin performed significantly better that the plant sterol in reducing the proinflammatory cytokine TNF-a in MS patients.

"This study shows that SIT can help reduce MS inflammation and has no side effects," said Desai. "The next step will be to test it in animal models of MS."

Also contributing to this research from UB were Murali Ramanathan, Ph.D., Carol S. Fink, Ph.D., Gregory E. Wilding, Ph.D., Bianca Weinstock-Guttman, M.D., and Atif B. Awad, Ph.D.

The study was funded by a grant to Awad from the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. The School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, School of Dental Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and School of Public Health and Health Professions are the five schools that constitute UB's Academic Health Center. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.