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One in every hundred adults in the Western world suffers from chronic glaucoma, a disease that causes blindness. In most cases the disease results from increased pressure inside the eye, caused by defective drainage of the transparent liquid that bathes the eye. Yet reducing the pressure does not always solve the problem.
Prof. Michal Schwartz, working in the Weizmann Institute's Neurobiology Department, came up with a novel idea. She suggested that toxic substances triggered by the initial damage are responsible for the ongoing nerve degeneration. These substances spill out of the damaged nerve cells and adversely affect healthy neighboring cells. Schwartz suggested activating the immune system – known to defend the body against external invaders such as bacteria – to combat the body's own toxic substances. She showed that in complete contrast to the generally accepted concept of autoimmunity (i.e., activity against the self) as inherently harmful, it can serve as a defense mechanism against damaging self-compounds. Autoimmune disease results when control of this mechanism breaks down.
On the basis of these findings, Schwartz developed a method ofboosting this defense mechanism without risking autoimmune disease. She showed that using Copaxone* (a drug that inducesa “beneficial” autoimmune response) as a vaccine protects the optic nerve from neuronal degeneration.
This innovative procedure will soon undergo clinical trials. In the past her approach resulted in a therapy for spinal cord injuries now being tested in clinical trials.
* Copaxone was developed at the Weizmann Institute by Dr. Dvora Teitelbaum, Prof. Ruth Arnon, and Prof. Michael Sela. It is manufactured and marketed by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and is widely used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis in Israel, Europe, and the United States.
Prof. Schwartz’s research is supported by the Daniel Heumann Fund for Spinal Cord Research, Bethesda, MD, and the Alan T. Brown Foundation. She is the incumbent of the Maurice and Ilse Katz Chair of Neuroimmunology.