Sticky molecule may hold key to nerve disorders

Thu Nov 29, 2007 2:42 PM ET
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) – A sticky molecule previously linked to inflammation also helps seal vital insulation around peripheral nerves, making it a potential target for new drugs against nerve disorders, scientists said on Thursday.
The latest research suggests the molecule, known as JAM-C, could be a key player in regulating the way nerves work.
In genetically modified mice without the adhesion molecule, the myelin insulation sheath protecting nerves deteriorates and the animals experience faulty nerve firing, muscle weakness and a shortened stride, researchers reported in the journal Science.
The team also found that nerves of patients with certain peripheral nerve disorders had defective JAM-C.
Taken together, the findings suggest the molecule is a key player in regulating the structure and function of peripheral nerves and its malfunction may cause a number of illnesses.
JAM-C, which was discovered only recently, is already being studied as a target for new medicines involved in inflammation and as a possible route to fight cancer, since it seems to help tumors form new blood vessels.
“This finding opens up yet another area that this molecule should be investigated in — but it’s very early days,” Sussan Nourshargh, professor of microvascular pharmacology at Barts and The London School of Medicine, said in an interview.
Nourshargh made the discovery of the molecule’s role in peripheral nerves by accident, while investigating blood vessels. Her team then collaborated with scientists at Imperial College London, University College London, Cancer Research UK and the University of Geneva to advance the work further.
There are more than 100 kinds of peripheral nerve disorders affecting approximately one in 20 people. They often afflict people with existing diseases like diabetes and lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease.
Symptoms include numbness, pain, tingling, muscle weakness and sensitivity to touch. Problems often start gradually and steadily get worse.
Nourshargh said the new molecule was not found in the central nervous system and was therefore unlikely to play a role multiple sclerosis.
JAM-C seems to work by sealing off the insulation in the critical gaps between so-called Schwann cells, which produce the myelin layers that wrap around nerve cells.
(Reporting by Ben Hirschler, editing by Paul Casciato)