A cure for motor neurone disease – which killed Professor Stephen Hawking – has moved one step closer, scientists believe.
The cruel condition causes signals from motor neurone nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to fail.
Motor neurones control crucial muscle activity and if they are damaged and break down some patients eventually find it impossible to walk or even speak.
Now researchers have found that another type of brain cell – thought to be harmless – could play a role in the disease, which is also known as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
Tests of cells from skin samples of patients with MND, also known as ALS, showed glial cells can damage motor neurones.
University of St Andrews researchers said glial cells normally support neurones in the brain and spinal cord.
They tested different combinations of glial cells and motor neurones grown together in the lab to test their discovery further.
They found glial cells from MND patients caused motor neurones of healthy people to stop producing the electrical signals needed to control muscles.
Professor Gareth Miles, who helped lead the joint project, said: ‘We are very excited by these new findings.’
He added they ‘clearly point the finger at glial cells as key players in this devastating disease’.
Professor Miles said: ‘Interestingly, the negative influence of glial cells seems to prevent motor neurones from fulfilling their normal roles, even before the motor neurones show signs of dying.
‘We hope that this new information highlights targets for the development of much-needed treatments and ultimately a cure for MND.’
Almost 15,000 Americans have ALS. The NHS says there are about 5,000 people in the UK living with a motor neurone disease.