Exclusive: as evidence emerges that schizophrenia could be an immune system disease, two-year trial will use antibody drug currently used for MS
British scientists have begun testing a radically new approach to treating schizophrenia based on emerging evidence that it could be a disease of the immune system.
The first patient, a 33-year old man who developed schizophrenia after moving to London from Cameroon a decade ago, was treated at Kings College Hospital in London on Thursday, marking the start of one of the most ambitious trials to date on the biology of the illness and how to treat it.
During the next two years, 30 patients will receive monthly infusions of an antibody drug currently used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), which the team hopes will target the root causes of schizophrenia in a far more fundamental way than current therapies.
The trial builds on more than a decades work by Oliver Howes, a professor of molecular psychiatry at the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences and a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London. Howess team is one of several worldwide to have uncovered evidence that abnormalities in immune activity in the brain may lie at the heart of the illness for some patients, at least.
In the past, weve always thought of the mind and the body being separate, but its just not like that, said Howes. The mind and body interact constantly and the immune system is no different. Its about changing the way we think about mental illnesses.
Recent work by Howes and colleagues found that in the earliest stages of schizophrenia, people experience a surge in the number and activity of immune cells in the brain. As well as fighting infection, these cells, called microglia, have a gardening role, pruning unwanted connections between neurons. But in schizophrenia patients, the pruning appears to become more aggressive, leading to vital connections being lost.
We studied people in that [initial] phase of the illness and saw microglial changes, said Howes. It shows that its something [happening] very early on and seems to be driving the illness.
The most extensive pruning appears to occur in the frontal cortex, the brains master control centre, and also the auditory regions, which could explain why patients often hear voices. The frontal cortex indirectly controls the brains levels of dopamine a surge in this brain chemical is thought to explain the delusions and paranoia experienced by those with schizophrenia.
Nearly all existing medications work by blocking dopamine, which can bring psychotic symptoms under control, but fail to protect the brains basic architecture from damage.
The current drugs are based on 1950s technology; they all still work in exactly the same way, said Howes. They are only able to target the delusion side of things. Its like getting a sledgehammer and squashing it down.