Using Drugs to Stimulate your Own Stem Cells to Treat Multiple Sclerosis

Paul Tesar from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. Ohio and his colleagues have discovered that two different drugs, miconazole and clobetasol, can reverse the symptoms of multiple sclerosis in laboratory animals. Furthermore, these drugs do so by stimulating the animals’ own native stem cell population that insulates nerves.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a member of the “demyelinating disorders.” The cause of MS remains unknown, but all of our available evidence strongly suggests that MS is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. In MS the immune system attacks and destroys myelin — the fatty substance that coats and protects nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. We can compare myelin to the insulation that surrounds electrical wires. When myelin is damaged, the nerve impulses that travel along that nerve may be slowed or blocked.

The myelin sheath is made by cells known as “oligodendrocytes,” and oligodendrocytes are derived from a stem cell population known as OPCs, which stands for oligodendrocyte progenitor cells. If this stem cell population could be stimulated, then perhaps the damaged myelin sheath could be repaired and the symptoms of MS ameliorated.

In a paper that appeared in the journal Nature (522, 2015 216-220), Tesar and the members of his research team, and his collaborators used a pluripotent mouse stem cell line and differentiated them into OPCs. Thyroid hormone is a known inducer of OPC differentiation. Therefore, Tesar and others screened a battery of drugs to determine if any of these compounds could induce OPC differentiation as cell as thyroid hormone. From this screen using cultured OPCs, two drugs, the antifungal drug miconazole and clobetasol, a corticosteroid of the glucocorticoid class, proved to do a better job of inducing OPC differentiation than thyroid hormone.

Was this an experimental artifact? Tesar and others devised an ingenious assay to measure the effectiveness of these two drugs. They used brain slices from fetal mice that were taken from animals whose brains had yet to synthesize myelin and applied OPCs to these slices with and without the drugs. With OPCs, no myelin was made because the OPCs did not receive any signal to differentiate into mature oligodendrocytes and synthesize myelin. However in the presence of either miconazole or clobetasol, the OPCs differentiated and successfully myelinated the brain slices.

Experiments in tissue culture are a great start, but do they demonstrate a biological reality within a live animal? To answer this question, Tesar and his crew injected laboratory mice with purified myelin. The immune systems of these mice generated a robust immune response against myelin that eroded the myelin sheath from their nerves. This condition mimics human MS and is called experimental autoimmune encephalitis, and it is an excellent model system for studying MS. When mice with experimental autoimmune encephalitis (EAE) were treated with either miconazole or clobetasol, the EAE mice showed a remarkable reversal of symptoms and a solid attenuation of demyelination. Tissue samples established that these reversals were due to increased OPC activity.

When the mechanisms of these drugs were examined in detail, it became clear that the two drugs worked through distinct biochemical mechanisms. Miconazole, for example, activated the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway, but clobetasol worked through the glucocorticoid receptor signaling pathway. Both of these signaling pathways converge, however, to increase OPC differentiation.

Both miconazole and clobetasol are only approved for topical administration. However, the fact that these drugs can cross the blood-brain barrier and effect changes in the brain is very exciting. Furthermore, this work establishes the template for screening new compounds that might be efficacious in human patients.

In the meantime, human patients might benefit from a clinical trial that determines if the symptoms and neural damage caused by MS can be reversed by the administration of these drugs or derivatives of these drugs.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).