Wednesday, 16 October 2019

DMF for Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism and Friedreich's Ataxia?

Yet more money was just donated to autism research. In 2017 the CEO of Broadcom gave $20 million to MIT and now he has given $20 million to Harvard, where he did his MBA.

Time to boost Homer's mitochondria?

I think philanthropists from the fast-moving IT sector should demand rather more from the slow-moving world of autism research.  I also think common sense is often more lacking than money.

The US Government has also just announced $1.8 billion for autism research.

Donald Trump authorized a five-year extension of the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support (CARES) Act. The 2014 act dedicated funds to children with autism spectrum disorder, but the new version includes adults.  Children with autism do indeed grow up to become adults with autism. 
Today we look at further applications of DMF, which is a cheap chemical also sold as a very expensive drug.

We learnt from Dr Kelley, from Johns Hopkins, that most regressive autism features mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria within cells produce ATP (fuel) via a complex multi-step process called OXPHOS. If you lack any of the required enzyme complexes for OXPHOS, that part of your body will suffer a power shortage/outage.  Another potential problem is just too few mitochondria.

The treatment for mitochondrial disease is mainly to avoid further damage, using antioxidants.  If you know which enzyme complex is lacking, you might try and target that.

We saw a long time ago in this blog that PGC-1α is the master regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis and as such this would be a target for people with mitochondrial dysfunction.

Among other interactions, PGC-1α is affected by something called PPAR-γ (Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma), also known as the glitazone receptor.

There are many cheap drugs that target PPAR-γ, because this is also one way to treat type 2 diabetes.  We saw that Glitazone drugs have been successfully trialed in autism.

Today we look at another way to activate PGC-1α and stimulate the production of more mitochondria and increase the necessary enzyme complexes for OXPHOS.

Many people with autism in the US are diagnosed by their MAPS/DAN doctor as lacking Complex 1.

DMF has two principal effects. It affects NRF2 and HCAR2.

Many supplements sold online are supposed to activate NRF2, but may well lack potency.

Activating NRF2 turns on your antioxidant defences and so is good for people with autism, diabetes, COPD and many other conditions, but is bad for someone with cancer.

We will see later how, somewhat bizarrely, at high doses DMF reverses function and causes cell death via oxidative stress, making it a potent potential cancer therapy.  Cancer cells are highly vulnerable to oxidative stress.

In this blog we are focusing on low doses of DMF, that are NRF2 activating.

In the chart below the NFE2L2 gene encodes the transcription factor NRF2. We want the antioxidant genes turned on.

We then get another benefit because NRF2 expression also regulates NRF1 expression.

The transcription factor NRF1 is another regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis with involvements in mitochondrial replication  and transcription of mitochondrial DNA.

We then get a third benefit from DMF via activating HCAR2, this time we increase Complex I expression.  In the OXPOS multistep process to make fuel/ATP the bottleneck is usually Complex I, so Complex I is often referred to as being “rate limiting”. Complex I is the most important deficiency to fix.

Dimethyl fumarate mediates Nrf2-dependent mitochondrial biogenesis in mice and humans

The induction of mitochondrial biogenesis could potentially alleviate mitochondrial and muscle disease. We show here that dimethyl fumarate (DMF) dose-dependently induces mitochondrial biogenesis and function dosed to cells in vitro, and also dosed in vivo to mice and humans. The induction of mitochondrial gene expression is more dependent on DMF's target Nrf2 than hydroxycarboxylic acid receptor 2 (HCAR2). Thus, DMF induces mitochondrial biogenesis primarily through its action on Nrf2, and is the first drug demonstrated to increase mitochondrial biogenesis with in vivo human dosing. This is the first demonstration that mitochondrial biogenesis is deficient in Multiple Sclerosis patients, which could have implications for MS pathophysiology and therapy. The observation that DMF stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis, gene expression and function suggests that it could be considered for mitochondrial disease therapy and/or therapy in muscle disease in which mitochondrial function is important.

DMF for Friedreich's ataxia

Friedreich's ataxia (FA) is a genetic disease caused by mutations in the FXN gene on the chromosome 9, which produces a protein called frataxin. It causes difficulty walking, a loss of sensation in the arms and legs and impaired speech that worsens over time. Symptoms typically start between 5 and 15 years of age. Most young people diagnosed with FA require a mobility aid such as a wheelchair by their teens. As the disease progresses, people lose their sight and hearing. Other complications include scoliosis and diabetes.

Frataxin is required for the normal functioning of mitochondria, the energy-producing factories of cells. Mutations in the FXN gene lead to a decrease in the production of frataxin and the consequent disruption in mitochondrial function.
No effective treatment exists. FA shortens life expectancy due to heart disease, but some people can live into their sixties.

Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA) is an inherited neurodegenerative disorder resulting from decreased expression of the mitochondrial protein frataxin, for which there is no approved therapy. High throughput screening of clinically used drugs identified Dimethyl fumarate (DMF) as protective in FA patient cells. Here we demonstrate that DMF significantly increases frataxin gene (FXN) expression in FA cell model, FA mouse model and in DMF treated humans. DMF also rescues mitochondrial biogenesis deficiency in FA-patient derived cell model. We further examined the mechanism of DMF's frataxin induction in FA patient cells. It has been shown that transcription-inhibitory R-loops form at GAA expansion mutations, thus decreasing FXN expression. In FA patient cells, we demonstrate that DMF significantly increases transcription initiation. As a potential consequence, we observe significant reduction in both R-loop formation and transcriptional pausing thereby significantly increasing FXN expression. Lastly, DMF dosed Multiple Sclerosis (MS) patients showed significant increase in FXN expression by ~85%. Since inherited deficiency in FXN is the primary cause of FA, and DMF is demonstrated to increase FXN expression in humans, DMF could be considered for Friedreich's therapy.

High Dose DMF to treat some cancer

Some readers may recall that the protein DJ-1 is encoded by the Parkinson’s gene PARK7 and that DMF has already been proposed as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. 

At high doses of DMF the protein DJ-1 loses its stabilization function and ends up effectively blocking NRF2. Put simply, high dose DMF turns off NRF2, making it a cancer cell killer.

Dimethyl Fumarate Controls the NRF2/DJ-1Axis in Cancer Cells: Therapeutic Applications

The transcription factor NRF2 (NFE2L2), regulates important antioxidant and cytoprotective genes. It enhances cancer cell proliferation and promotes chemoresistance in several cancers. Dimethyl fumarate (DMF) is known to promote NRF2 activity in noncancer models. We combined in vitro and in vivo methods to examine the effect of DMF on cancer cell death and the activation of the NRF2 antioxidant pathway. We demonstrated that at lower concentrations (<25 a="" activation="" antioxidant="" cytoprotective="" dmf="" has="" mol="" nrf2="" of="" pathway.="" role="" span="" the="" through=""> At higher concentrations, however (>25 μmol/L), DMF caused oxidative stress and subsequently cytotoxicity in several cancer cell lines. High DMF concentration decreases nuclear translocation of NRF2 and production of its downstream targets. The pro-oxidative and cytotoxic effects of high concentration of DMF were abrogated by overexpression of NRF2 in OVCAR3 cells, suggesting that DMF cytotoxicity is dependent of NRF2 depletion. High concentrations of DMF decreased the expression of DJ-1, a NRF2 protein stabilizer. Using DJ-1 siRNA and expression vector, we observed that the expression level of DJ-1 controls NRF2 activation, antioxidant defenses, and cell death in OVCAR3 cells. Finally, antitumoral effect of daily DMF (20 mg/kg) was also observed in vivo in two mice models of colon cancer. Taken together, these findings implicate the effect of DJ-1 on NRF2 in cancer development and identify DMF as a dose-dependent modulator of both NRF2 and DJ-1, which may be useful in exploiting the therapeutic potential of these endogenous antioxidants.

Proposed mechanism of DMF-induced cancer cell death. Low concentrations of DMF can induce the NRF2 antioxidant pathway, allowing NRF2 nuclear translocation and binding to the antioxidant response elements leading to the transcription of antioxidant and detoxifying enzymes, thereby promoting cell survival. High concentrations of DMF, however, induce disruption of the NRF2 stabilizer DJ-1, which in turn impairs NRF2 induction and transcriptional activities in response to DMF, induces ROS generation, GSH depletion, and hence, facilitates cancer cell death. Cys, cysteine; 2SC, succination of cysteine residues.


This post did not cost $20 million, it is yours for free.

It looks pretty obvious that people with autism caused by, or associated with, mitochondrial dysfunction might potentially benefit from DMF.

People with Friedreich’s Ataxia do not currently have any treatment options. Low dose DMF is free of side effects, the high doses used to treat Psoriasis and Multiple Sclerosis often cause troubling GI side effects.

DMF seems to have very many potential therapeutic applications, limited only by the cost of the pharmaceutical version of this cheap chemical. Fortunately the "autism dose" is tiny.

Related Earlier Posts

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Treating Autism – The State of Play

Image © Acabashi; Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have learnt a great deal since I started to research autism treatment in 2012 and publish my notes in this blog from 2013. Prior to 2012 I had assumed that autism was not medically treatable and that there was no evidence to the contrary, so anyone claiming to treat autism must be a quack.  You are supposed to "trust your doctor" and I come from a family full of them.  It turns out that almost all treatments for conditions of the brain, ranging from depression to Multiple Sclerosis to dementia are only very partially effective, but in most cases they are better than nothing. Apply these expectations to treating autism and then read the medical research and clinical trials; you will see that autism is indeed as treatable.  

It turns out that many people have found effective medical therapies for their autism. But autism is not viewed as a public health emergency, like HIV or Ebola and no public health authority shows much interest. Don't expect that to change.

The leaves are beginning to fall and we are on our way to 2020, much time has passed but has the wider world caught on and moved at all?  Not really.

  • Enthusiastic autism pharma start-ups come and go, losing hundreds of millions of dollars
  • Autism therapies are fast-tracked by the FDA, then go nowhere fast
  • Autism treatment case histories, using existing drugs, get published but are ignored
  • Partially successful autism clinical trials of existing drugs keep getting published and are then ignored 
  • Some very bright clinicians do not publish their successful work in treating autism
  • Clinicians successfully treating their own children with autism often choose to remain silent
  • A tiny number of mainstream medical doctors do treat autism, but some cleverly call it something less controversial, like encephalopathy
  • Many of the “doctors” who do treat autism are not doctors of medicine (i.e. an MD).  This is the case in North America where the "doctor" can be a DO (Osteopathy) or a DC (Chiropractic), for example Dr Nemenchek is a DO.  I think this is partly where the crank issue has arisen from; many MDs do not seem to like DOs and DCs, particularly if they write books with the word miracle on the front cover.   
  • Treating idiopathic autism is still viewed as a dangerous/crank activity by mainstream medicine; the  best view is fringe and the worst is cringe.
  • Treating single gene autism is now viewed quite favorably, it is somehow more acceptable that treating equally severe idiopathic autism.  It attracts at least some MDs, rather than DOs and DCs.  It is seen as something clever, like treating cancer.
  • By shifting autism to a more trivial condition, by diagnosing so many people, it appears to not even need treating
  • Many things do look very odd in the world of autism. People with a sibling or child with Autism/MR/ID can react very differently, some are inspired to help others and some even look to develop medical treatments, while others either never tried, failed or gave up and are now against medical treatment (in the UK Psychologist Simon Barons Cohen and author/GP Dr Fitzpatrick, for example). The idea seems to be that because they could not help their family member, you should not try.  Very defeatist. People should declare their inherent bias and indeed their own psychiatric diagnosis, if they have one, that would rule out 90% of what is written about autism, much of which is nonsense. In the wider world, you learn from your failures, strive for success and never give up.  That is how progress is made.  Those who have failed, or given up, should move aside and give space to the next generation who will achieve more.  If it is a disease or disability, you treat it; you do not just hide it by broadening the diagnosis to include trivial cases and then "celebrate" it as just a difference.

Hopefully, Neurochlore and Servier will get Bumetanide approved for autism in Europe in the next few years.

Hopefully, doctors will actually prescribe it to European toddlers through to adults with autism.

Only then will mainstream doctors stop saying you cannot treat core autism with a pill. In reality there is evidence that dozens of pills are potentially beneficial, but there is no sure-fire way to predict which will be helpful in one specific person. 

It has been clear for years, to anyone who chooses to actually read the medical research, that many cheap existing pills can be repurposed for various sub-types of autism.  In almost all cases, polytherapy will be needed and treatment leads to improvement rather than cure. This is also the case with MS, epilepsy, depression etc.

I hope that by 2030 at least monotherapy for core autism with MR/ID will be in the mainstream.  In the meantime a small number of people, with otherwise severe autism, will continue to benefit from their science-based personalized medical treatment.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Elevated Prenatal Estradiol in Mothers/Babies – a protective reaction to stress that also predicts who will develop Autism? Time for Fetal Medicine?

There has been little mention in this blog about fetal medicine, but it is an area that does hold great promise.  At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they have been surgically treating babies with spina bifida prior to their birth for nearly twenty years. Early surgical intervention to the spine even allows for malformation of the brain to be self-repaired and this is visible on MRI scans. Such prenatal treatment can be 100% successful, resulting in there being no physical disability in adulthood. 

The more you read about neuroscience the more you realize how little we really know and so encouraging the brain to self-repair may indeed be the best strategy.  This is an avenue of research and not just with stem cells.  A similar approach is proving successful in treating skin cancer, you do not attack the cancer with drugs, you modify the immune system with a drug so it "wakes up" and does its job and kills the cancer cells.

        Skin cancer: Half of people surviving advanced melanoma

Hormones are an often-ignored area of autism research, but they are they on my Venn diagram simplification of autism.

We have seen how female hormones can be highly neuroprotective and that the estradiol/testosterone balance affects a key “switch” that controls gene expression RORalpha.

Today we see that researchers in Utah suggest that stress in the developing fetus with autism causes an increase in estradiol, as a protective mechanism, and this increase in estradiol can then be measured in the mother’s blood. They propose that this elevated estradiol is an advance warning of a baby with autism.

University of Utah researchers have discovered a link between increased levels of a type of estrogen in babies in their second trimester and risk for autism, according to a new study.

The findings could eventually help doctors identify babies at risk of autism early in their mothers’ pregnancies and monitor them more closely, as well as provide early interventions to ensure the children’s well-being, said Dr. Deborah A. Bilder, the study’s first author.

Both the control group and the group of mothers whose children had autism were selected so that 50% of each group had an exposure to a condition such as gestational diabetes, hypertension and preeclampsia. Previous studies have shown links between those conditions and autism risk.

The researchers looked at several different steroids in the blood samples. Bilder said she expected to find increased levels of steroids that were known to be associated with the conditions, like testosterone. She found those steroids, but they did not reach a statistical significance, according to Bilder.

Bilder also expected progesterone and testosterone in the kids who developed autism to be elevated.

“But that’s not what I found. Instead, what I found, is estradiol being elevated in the children who developed autism,” she said.

Estradiol is a type of estrogen. Lower levels of estradiol in a baby usually indicate a concern with the baby, and high estrogen levels are not currently associated with abnormal conditions.

But as the researchers looked at the steroid hormones that were measured, “what we realized is that the higher estrogen levels being produced by the placenta actually may be stimulating the baby’s development of his or her stress response.”
Usually, a baby’s stress response takes time so that when the pregnancy reaches full term, the baby has developed its own stress response. But elevated levels of estrogen cause the baby’s stress response to develop early, Bilder said.
That prepares babies, when there is an issue, to survive outside the mom. It causes early growth of the lungs, gut and skin so that if the baby doesn’t make it all the way through pregnancy, it’s more likely to survive, she said.

The findings indicated that in the babies with autism, something set off their stress response early.

Studies have shown that children with autism have an abnormal stress response, according to Bilder. She believes the mechanism that triggers the early stress response during pregnancy may still be affecting children with autism past delivery.

Bilder doesn’t think doctors should target the higher estradiol levels or try to lower them. Instead, because it signals a “protective mechanism, that baby is surviving,” doctors should target something that doesn’t jeopardize the baby’s survival.

“By being able to have a way of looking at the baby’s well-being in that regard, I think that opens up the door to considering how can you reduce the stress on that baby?” Bilder explained.
The full paper:-

Early Second Trimester Maternal Serum Steroid-Related Biomarkers Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Epidemiologic studies link increased autism spectrum disorder (ASD) risk to obstetrical conditions associated with inflammation and steroid dysregulation, referred to as prenatal metabolic syndrome (PNMS). This pilot study measured steroid-related biomarkers in early second trimester maternal serum collected during the first and second trimester evaluation of risk study. ASD case and PNMS exposure status of index offspring were determined through linkage with autism registries and birth certificate records. ASD case (N = 53) and control (N = 19) groups were enriched for PNMS exposure. Higher estradiol and lower sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) were significantly associated with increased ASD risk. Study findings provide preliminary evidence to link greater placental estradiol activity with ASD and support future investigations of the prenatal steroid environment in ASD.

Fig. 1 The placenta produces estradiol from DHEA of both maternal and fetal origin and shunts over 90% of estradiol into the maternal circulation. The volume of DHEA substrate determines placental estradiol production and subsequently maternal serum estradiol levels. DHEA exists primarily in its conjugated form DHEAS

This is interesting as are some other findings linking steroid hormones to future autism. Another paper highlights a mechanism where maternal stress only has damaging effects on the male fetus (Placental adaptation in response to PNMS is sex-dependent, leading to an increased risk of adverse neurodevelopmental effect in male compared to female).

This paper looks at the effect of maternal stress on serotonin and another group of hormones (Glucocorticoids).

Effects of prenatal maternal stress on serotonin and fetal development

Fetuses are exposed to many environmental perturbations that can influence their development. These factors can be easily identifiable such as drugs, chronic diseases or prenatal maternal stress. Recently, it has been demonstrated that the serotonin synthetized by the placenta was crucial for fetal brain development. Moreover, many studies show the involvement of serotonin system alteration in psychiatric disease during childhood and adulthood. This review summarizes existing studies showing that prenatal maternal stress, which induces alteration of serotonin systems (placenta and fetal brain) during a critical window of early development, could lead to alteration of fetal development and increase risks of psychiatric diseases later in life.


         Fig. 1. Proposed mechanism of fetal programming of psychiatric disorders involving placental serotonin system. Cortisol and placental serotonin are essential for fetal brain development. Prenatal maternal stress alters glucocorticoid (11b-HSD2, GR and CRH) and serotonin (SERT, 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A) systems as well as serotonin and glucocorticoid interaction in the placenta. These placental alterations lead to adverse neurodevelopment and programming leading to psychiatric disorders later in life. Placental adaptation in response to PNMS is sex-dependent, leading to an increased risk of adverse neurodevelopmental effect in male compared to female. 11b-HSD2: Type 2 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, GR: Glucocorticoid receptor, CRH: Corticotrophin releasing hormone, SERT: Serotonin transporter, 5-HT1A: Serotonin 1A receptor, 5-HT2A: Serotonin 2A receptor

It should be noted that estradiol is supposed to be elevated during pregnancy. Indeed, this elevation is suggested to explain why females with ADHD have far less symptoms during pregnancy (estradiol is good for ADHD). The study is highlighting a level of estradiol during pregnancy that is even higher than that normally expected.

Spina bifida is normally detected by ultrasound before 18 weeks of pregnancy. This is around the same time that in autism there appears to be elevated estradiol.  Hopefully other biomarkers will also be found.

Given this advance warning, there is potential for fetal medicine.

Only very recently was the first person in the UK treated for spina bifida using fetal surgery, almost two decades after the first operations in the US.

Fetal medicine for autism would not be surgical, rather pharmacological.  In mouse models it has already started.

Estradiol has many effects and I did write about DHED, an orally active, centrally selective estrogen and a biosynthetic prodrug of estradiol. DHED is estradiol just for the brain, without affecting the rest of the body.  I think many people would benefit from DHED, across the range from ADHD to TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).

DHED, delivering Estradiol only to the Brain, also Lupron and Spironolactone

Estradiol may indeed prove to be a fetal biomarker for autism and DHED might be a useful drug for someone with autism (via ERβ and RORalpha).

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Treatable Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs) in Multiple Sclerosis (MS), ALS and other Neurological Diseases – an Enemy from Within?

A microglial cell, labelled in green, contacts and attacks a myelinated axon (in red). In the presence of the pHERV-W envelope protein, this interaction leads to axonal injury. The blue structures are cell nuclei. Credit: HHU / Joel Gruchot / Patrick Küry

It is surprising that only about 2% of human DNA encodes the 20,000 or so genes we all have.  The other 98% used to be called junk DNA.

About 8% of your DNA is made up of Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) that have been picked up during evolution and most of which have been inactivated and can indeed be regarded as junk. Some of these old viruses that became part of human DNA remain fully functional, can be activated; they are implicated in disease ranging from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), to cancer, to schizophrenia and ALS (motor neuron disease).

The best documented ERV is the one that affects some people with MS, it is called HERV-W  (the H is for Human).  Only in the presence of a protein encoded by this virus can the microglia cells attack the myelin layer on axons.  In this kind of MS, if you could switch off the HERV-W virus you would solve the remyelination problem.

The thing to remember is that MS is a family of conditions and HERV-W may only be relevant to specific sub-types.  The recent research (see below) produced the image at the start of today’s post, where we actually see the microglia (green) mistakenly attacking the healthy myelin on axons (red).

Multiple sclerosis: Endogenous retrovirus HERV-W key to nerve tissue damage

As outlined by first author Dr. David Kremer, the envelope (ENV) protein of the pathogenic human endogenous retrovirus type W (pHERV-W) was found to be a major contributor to nerve damage in MS. In collaboration with research teams in the U.S. and Canada, the authors demonstrated that the ENV protein drives CNS resident microglial cells to contact and damage myelinated axons.                                                                                      

There is a broad repertoire of immunomodulatory drugs that effectively treat the inflammatory aspects of relapsing multiple sclerosis (MS). However, axonal degeneration, which occurs mainly in progressive MS, is still not understood and cannot be treated pharmaceutically. As it is the major factor contributing to clinical disability in MS, it represents an unmet clinical need. A recently completed phase IIb study has demonstrated that anti-pathogenic human endogenous retrovirus type W (pHERV-W) envelope protein (ENV) treatment results in a significant decrease of neurodegenerative brain atrophy in treated MS patients. For these results, the work presented here offers an explanation by demonstrating that, via myeloid cells, pHERV-W ENV directly harms axons.

Axonal degeneration is central to clinical disability and disease progression in multiple sclerosis (MS). Myeloid cells such as brain-resident microglia and blood-borne monocytes are thought to be critically involved in this degenerative process. However, the exact underlying mechanisms have still not been clarified. We have previously demonstrated that human endogenous retrovirus type W (HERV-W) negatively affects oligodendroglial precursor cell (OPC) differentiation and remyelination via its envelope protein pathogenic HERV-W (pHERV-W) ENV (formerly MS-associated retrovirus [MSRV]-ENV). In this current study, we investigated whether pHERV-W ENV also plays a role in axonal injury in MS. We found that in MS lesions, pHERV-W ENV is present in myeloid cells associated with axons. Focusing on progressive disease stages, we could then demonstrate that pHERV-W ENV induces a degenerative phenotype in microglial cells, driving them toward a close spatial association with myelinated axons. Moreover, in pHERV-W ENV-stimulated myelinated cocultures, microglia were found to structurally damage myelinated axons. Taken together, our data suggest that pHERV-W ENV-mediated microglial polarization contributes to neurodegeneration in MS. Thus, this analysis provides a neurobiological rationale for a recently completed clinical study in MS patients showing that antibody-mediated neutralization of pHERV-W ENV exerts neuroprotective effects.

Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS)

Most MS starts out as so-called Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS) and so is the focus of much research. An antibody called GNbAC1 has been developed to specifically target the protein MSRV-Env that is produced by the old human endogenous retrovirus type W.

GNbAC1 for RRMS 

In vitro and in vivo studies showed that GNbAC1 neutralizes MSRV-Env, reducing the inflammatory response and allowing the remyelination repair process to restart.

I think this is an excellent example of how to translate complicated science into a practical therapy.  I just hate to think how much money this therapy will cost.

Or just Antivirals?

I did wonder about a less expensive therapy to block the MSRV-Env protein from activating microglia to destroy myelin.  Why not use a relatively cheap antiviral drug to dampen the virus itself, so it does not make the harmful protein?

Unlike most antibiotics, antiviral drugs do not destroy their target pathogen; instead they inhibit their development.

Antiviral drugs normally have to be developed to target a specific virus, but you might just get lucky with an existing drug.

In the case of HIV, a combination of three drugs is used TDF (tenofovir), EFV (efavirenz) and either 3TC (lamivudine) or FTC (emtricitabine).  This therapy has been hugely successful.

The anti-herpes antivirals include valacyclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir), and acyclovir (Zovirax).

In the case of Multiple Sclerosis, I did find a study that used acyclovir.  It did not cure the condition, but it did significantly reduce exacerbations.

I am afraid nobody seems to want a cheap drug for MS, when the other only partially effective ones can cost $50,000 a year. Acyclovir is much more expensive in the US than elsewhere but nothing like the price of the new MS drugs.

It may of course be a coincidence that Acyclovir reduces exacerbations in MS and may involve an entirely different mechanism.

Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) beyond MS

Drugs for MS are a huge business for pharmaceutical companies and this is why the research is advanced.

HERVs have been implicated in ALS (motor neuron disease) and schizophrenia.  There is even some research on HERVs and autism.

It is usually the Herpes virus that gets mentioned in the context of autism. It is probably one of hundreds of possible triggers that, when combined with other “hits” and genetic predispositions, may lead to autism.

Any virus can affect gene expression and so any virus has the potential to cause harm to a developing brain.  This is often all "autism" is, the result of some damage at a critical point in the brain's development. That same event in a teenager does no long term harm. 

Herpes virus may be a trigger for autism

“We’re not saying that HSV-2 is responsible for infecting the [fetal] brain and causing autism,” stresses senior author Ian Lipkin, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at Columbia. Indeed, fetal infection with HSV-2 is so serious that it frequently leads to miscarriages or stillbirths. Rather, Lipkin suspects that HSV-2 is just one among many environmental insults that, when they arrive at a vulnerable point in fetal development in women predisposed to damaging reactions, may trigger ASD in the fetus. That idea comports with a body of previous work, like this Swedish study that found that the hospitalization of a woman for any kind of infection during pregnancy increased the risk of the baby developing ASD by 30%.
Some scientists are skeptical that inflammatory molecules alone could be responsible, in part because of the big changes in brain structure that arise in autistic children in the first 2 years of life, just as symptoms of ASD emerge. For instance, a study published in Nature last week documents abnormal overgrowth of the surface of the brain in 6- to 12-month-old babies who go on to be diagnosed with ASD.

Are the 'viral' agents of MS, ALS and schizophrenia buried in our genome?

Viruses hid themselves in your ancestors' DNA; now they're waking up

What if the missing 'environmental' factor in some of our deadliest neurological diseases were really written in our genome? Researchers explain how viruses ended up in our DNA -- and what puts them in the frame in unsolved diseases like multiple sclerosis.

The enemy within
A whopping 8% of our DNA comes from viruses. Specifically, ones called retroviruses -- not because they're old, but because they reverse the normal process of reading DNA to write themselves into their host's genome.
Retroviruses are old though: they began merging with our earliest, primordial ancestors millions of years ago. Over the millennia, most of their remnants in our DNA -- known as human endogenous retroviruses or HERVs -- have been silenced by mutations. Others, which had evolved to fend off rival viruses, formed the prototypical immune system and to this day protect us from infection.
However, HERVs might also be the missing causative link in major 'unsolved' neurological diseases.
"HERVs have been implicated in the onset and progression of multiple sclerosis [MS], amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS] and schizophrenia [SCZ]," says senior author Prof. Patrick Kuery. "Dormant HERVs can be reactivated by environmental factors such as inflammation, mutations, drugs, or infection with other viruses, so could provide a mechanism for their well-established epidemiological link to these disorders."

Full paper: -

Neural Cell Responses Upon Exposure to Human Endogenous Retroviruses

Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are ancient retroviral elements, which invaded the human germ line several million years ago. Subsequent retrotransposition events amplified these sequences, resulting in approximately 8% of the human genome being composed of HERV sequences today. These genetic elements, normally dormant within human genomes, can be (re)-activated by environmental factors such as infections with other viruses, leading to the expression of viral proteins and, in some instances, even to viral particle production. Several studies have shown that the expression of these retroviral elements correlates with the onset and progression of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Further studies provided evidence on additional roles for HERVs in schizophrenia (SCZ). Since these diseases are still not well understood, HERVs might constitute a new category of pathogenic components that could significantly change our understanding of these pathologies. Moreover, knowledge about their mode of action might also help to develop novel and more powerful approaches for the treatment of these complex diseases. Therefore, the main scope of this review is a description of the current knowledge on the involvement of HERV-W and HERV-K in neurological disease specifically focusing on the effects they exert on neural cells of the central nervous system.

Importantly, several studies were able to show that inflammation plays a major role in HERV activation 

SCZ is a complex neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by a variety of cognitive, emotional, and perceptual disturbances. Pathophysiologically, SCZ features decreased brain volume, loss of myelin, and altered astrocyte function (Archer, 2010). In contrast to MS and ALS, both HERV-W and HERV-K have been weakly linked to SCZ based on PCR amplification from CSF and post-mortem brains as well as on protein antigenemia (Yolken et al., 2000Karlsson et al., 2001Frank et al., 2005Perron et al., 2008), while another study revealed upregulation of HERV-W ENV transcripts in plasma samples of SCZ patients (Huang et al., 2011). Moreover, a new study provides evidence that, in early stages of this disease, HERV-K methylation in peripheral blood is reduced (Mak et al., 2019). Of note, these observations contradict an earlier report suggesting that HERV-W expression is reduced in SCZ patients (Weis et al., 2007). The disparity between these reports may reflect different experimental approaches or a differential use of anti-psychotic medications in SCZ patients.

We here present collected evidence that endogenous retroviral elements acting either as viral particles or via their proteins influence neural cells in the context of degenerative CNS diseases. Once thought to be primarily involved in cell transformation (Grabski et al., 2019) and inflammation (Perron and Lang, 2010), emerging data suggests a direct role of these elements in glial and neuronal injury, which in fact goes beyond previous descriptions on the activity of a gliotoxin (Menard et al., 1998). In light of additional observations on the role of ERVs in regulating stem cell potential and fate acquisition (Gautam et al., 2017), the findings describing impacts on committed or mature cells of the CNS are probably not too surprising but warrant future investigations, even more so since neural stem cells are also involved in brain pathology and regeneration. Moreover, the currently still unmet clinical need to effectively treat neurodegeneration necessitates novel therapeutic approaches. Whether similar mechanisms also apply to activation of transposable elements implicated in, for example, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS; Almenar-Perez et al., 2019) and to what degree currently used neutralizing antibodies can be exploited in order to prevent neural cell activation and/or neurodegeneration needs to be elucidated in the future. In this regard, it remains to be shown whether HERV-employed signaling pathways and epigenetic silencing mechanisms can be used for biomedical translation.


Figure 1 HERV-mediated effects on neural cells. This illustration summarizes origin and observed molecular effects of HERW-W and HERV-K on cells of the central nervous system. Arrow starting points indicate cellular sources of HERV particles or proteins (red dots), whereas arrowheads point to influenced cell types. Modulated processes are shown in gray boxes, and regulated molecules are highlighted in red next to each cell type. The question mark next to TDP-43 refers to its postulated regulation in neurons. Whether microglia and astroglia respond to HERVs in an auto- and/or paracrine way and whether neurons react to internal and/or extracellular HERVs remains to be shown. OPCs: oligodendroglial progenitor cells; NO: nitric oxide; CRP: C-reactive protein; BDNF: brain-derived neurotrophic factor; DRD3: dopamine receptor D3; TRPC3: short transient receptor potential channel 3; DISC1: disrupted in schizophrenia 1; TDP-43: TAR DNA-binding protein 43.

HERVs, retroviral sequences integrated into the genome during evolution, are now known to represent 8% of the human genome.

These were recently shown to comprise copies that retain potential to express retroviral proteins or particles, and can be abnormally expressed in autoimmune, neurodegenerative, chronic inflammatory diseases, and cancer.
Environmental factors such as specific viral infections were shown to potently activate HERVs under tissue-specific and temporal conditions.
Of several diseases in which abnormal activation and expression of HERV proteins have been reported, studies over recent decades have led to a proof of concept that HERVs play a key role in the pathogenesis of MS and ALS.
HERV-W and HERV-K Env proteins induce pathogenic effects in vitro and in vivo that are relevant to the pathognomonic features of these diseases.
These endogenous retroviruses are potential novel therapeutic targets that are now being addressed with innovative therapeutic strategies in clinical trials.
The causes of multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis have long remained elusive. A new category of pathogenic components, normally dormant within human genomes, has been identified: human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). These represent ∼8% of the human genome, and environmental factors have reproducibly been shown to trigger their expression. The resulting production of envelope (Env) proteins from HERV-W and HERV-K appears to engage pathophysiological pathways leading to the pathognomonic features of MS and ALS, respectively. Pathogenic HERV elements may thus provide a missing link in understanding these complex diseases. Moreover, their neutralization may represent a promising strategy to establish novel and more powerful therapeutic approaches.

HERVs Expression in Autism Spectrum Disorders


The percentage of HERV-H and HERV-W positive samples was higher among ASD patients compared to HCs, while HERV-K was similarly represented and HERV-E virtually absent in both groups. The quantitative evaluation shows that HERV-H and HERV-W are differentially expressed in the two groups, with HERV-H being more abundantly expressed and, conversely, HERV-W, having lower abundance, in PBMCs from ASDs compared to healthy controls. PMBCs from ASDs also showed an increased potential to up-regulate HERV-H expression upon stimulation in culture, unlike HCs. Furthermore we report a negative correlation between expression levels of HERV-H and age among ASD patients and a statistically significant higher expression in ASD patients with Severe score in Communication and Motor Psychoeducational Profile-3.


Specific HERV families have a distinctive expression profile in ASD patients compared to HCs. We propose that HERV-H expression be explored in larger samples of individuals with autism spectrum in order to determine its utility as a novel biological trait of this complex disorder.

Recent studies suggest that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) result from interactions between genetic and environmental factors, whose possible links could be represented by epigenetic mechanisms. Here, we investigated the transcriptional activity of three human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) families, in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from Albanian ASD children, by quantitative real-time PCR. We aimed to confirm the different expression profile already found in Italian ASD children, and to highlight any social and family health condition emerging from information gathered through a questionnaire, to be included among environmental risk factors. The presence of increased HERV-H transcriptional activity in all autistic patients could be understood as a constant epigenetic imprinting of the disease, potentially useful for early diagnosis and for the development of effective novel therapeutic strategies.

Overall, the data obtained in the present study lead us to further support the hypothesis that HERV transcriptional activity is influenced by all the factors mentioned above. Additional work is required to determine if HERV-H expression could be proposed as a biological marker, useful for early detection of children at high risk for ASD, before the appearance of clinical symptoms and for the development of effective new therapeutic strategies. To this end, an in-depth characterization of the potential role of HERV-H in ASD is the major objective of a study currently in progress in murine models. Currently, up to 2% of children worldwide are estimated to be diagnosed with an ASD (Pedersen et al., 2014) and the consistent increment in the prevalence of ASD is considered a pressing challenge for the global public health system. Because children represent more than a third of the Albanian population (Albanian Institute of Statistics 2011) autism is a serious socio-economic problem and its early diagnosis could represent a significant improvement in the treatment of the disease. In fact, if the autistic condition is diagnosed early, a growing repertoire of evidence-based therapies can be applied to give children the best possible chance of life.

Etiotropic and Pathogenetic Therapy of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Case Series of 6 Children

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that reveals itself by social communication problems, restrictive/repetitive behavior, and language impairment. ASD is a growing problem in the USA and in the world with no commonly-accepted etiology resulting in the absence of effective methods of treatment. Based on more than 80 scientific publications we are proposing the following understanding of ASD: it is a genetic disorder, in which some changes in DNA are resulting from a congenital mother to fetus transmitted infection and maternal immune activation. The infections and maternal immune activation result in oxidative stress and production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and other mediators. Based on this understanding, we developed a method of long-term etiotropic and pathogenetic therapy tailored to major chronic/latent infections, inflammation and immune system aberration. We present six cases of ASD treatment, which included the antiviral medication Valacyclovir and five nutritional supplements. The presented results are based on five cycles of treatment continued for 5 months. In all six cases the treatment resulted in social communication skills and behavioral improvements well as positive changes in the physical and psychological conditions. These improvements covariated with a tendency to normalization of blood and immune parameters. Social communication skills, behavioral, physical and psychological improvements also positively affected parents whose subjected quality of life increased over course of the treatment. According to parents of these children, the proposed treatment had superior efficacy compared to other types of treatment that their children underwent before.

Valacyclovir improves cognition in bipolar patients

A 4-month course of the oral antiviral agent valacyclovir boosted cognition in herpes simplex virus-1–seropositive patients with bipolar disorder and cognitive impairment in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.

Anti herpes Virus–Specific Treatment and Cognition in Schizophrenia: A Test-of-Concept Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial


To test our hypothesis that valacyclovir, an antiherpes virus–specific medication, added to antipsychotics (APs) would improve cognitive performance and psychopathology among schizophrenia subjects exposed to neurotropic herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV1).


Using a double-blind placebo-controlled design, we randomized 24 HSV1-seropositive schizophrenia subjects to receive either valacyclovir (n = 12) or placebo (n = 12) for 18 weeks in addition to stable doses of APs. Valacyclovir dose was stabilized at 1.5 g twice daily orally. At each visit, subjects were evaluated for severity of psychopathology and side effects using standardized scales and a study-specific semistructured checklist. A computerized neurocognitive battery validated on both schizophrenia and healthy subjects was administered at baseline and follow-up. Intent-to-treat analysis, using linear regression models that included all randomized subjects, were used to examine differential changes in cognition and psychopathology scores over 18 weeks between valacyclovir and placebo, accounting for placebo response.


Valacyclovir group improved in verbal memory, working memory, and visual object learning compared with placebo group. The effect sizes (Cohen’s d) were 0.79 for working memory, 1.14 for immediate verbal memory, and 0.97 for the visual object learning. Psychotic symptom severity did not improve.


Supplemental valacyclovir may alleviate impairments in cognitive domains that are often observed in schizophrenia but not psychotic symptoms in those exposed to HSV1. If replicated, this approach could provide a novel strategy to treat cognitive impairments in a subgroup of schizophrenia subjects who can be reliably identified using a blood test.


There is a great deal going on in the world of MS research and if you have MS you might as well consider becoming an early adopter.

As expected, the research on how these old viruses, that should be dormant in our DNA, might play a role in autism is not very advanced.

Some people with autism do take antiviral drugs and I think their caregivers think this relates to a virus they have acquired recently or comes from the mother. Perhaps it is an unidentified virus from that 8% of your DNA that has become activated?

In MS the story is complex but now we know for sure what the virus is, where it came from and what it does. You can defeat it with a tailor-made antibody called GNbAC1 or perhaps just beat it down a little with the common antiviral drug Acyclovir.

Note that antiviral drugs each only have an effect on certain types of virus.

Do HERVs really materially affect some people with autism, and its big brothers bipolar and schizophrenia? There is some limited evidence that they may.

People who report that their children with autism do indeed improve on an antiviral drug are unlikely to ever know which virus was the problem and it may not be the one they thought it was, but it is not a crazy idea.  If it reduces the symptoms of autism without causing troubling side effects, why not?  It is going to work for most autism? Probably not.

For people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) the science is clear and unambiguous, you need to wipe out the protein called MSRV-Env.

As far as this blog is concerned, we already covered antibiotics in depth.

and today we covered antivirals.  These are the “anti- drugs” that our reader Tanya referred to as not being useful in her case of autism; I think she will be in the majority.  You have to treat your “minority” case of autism, which is what makes it difficult. 

Almost every common autism treatment strategy is misrepresented as a wonder therapy; that is how you sell books, supplements, lab tests and even now I see expensive "training" courses. The reality is somewhat messy and less convenient, but if you read the science great progress does seem to be possible in many cases.