A compound found in turkey may one day help treat multiple sclerosis (MS), new research shows.

So far, scientists have tested an artificial version of the compound on mice with an MS-like condition. The strategy they tried reversed the paralysis caused by the mice’s disease, the researchers write in Science.

That doesn’t mean that your Thanksgiving dinner will cure or prevent MS. But the finding may eventually prompt the development of new drugs for MS and other diseases.

The researchers included Michael Platten, MD, now of the neurology department of Germany’s University of Tubingen, and Lawrence Steinman, MD, of Stanford University.

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Compound Clue

Platten’s team focused on tryptophan, a chemical that’s found in turkey and other meats.

Specifically, they studied compounds released when tryptophan breaks down.

In the body, tryptophan has several jobs. It helps make serotonin (a brain chemical), as well as the B vitamin niacin. It may be best known by the public for making some people feel sleepy after eating turkey.

Platten’s experiment focused on how tryptophan’s byproducts affect the immune system.

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Calming Killer Cells

In MS, the immune system doesn’t work properly.

The immune system is supposed to defend the body from things that don’t belong there (like viruses). But in MS, the immune system attacks the body itself. That’s why MS is called an “autoimmune” disease.

The dirty work is done by “T cells,” the immune system’s killer cells.

T-cells are called into action by a series of chemical messengers. Picture an attack dog waiting in its kennel until several layers of staffers sign off on its release.

What if those chemical orders were short-circuited? Platten’s team used tryptophan’s byproducts to do that in mice with an MS-like condition.

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Tests on Mice

In one test, the food of the mice was laced with doses of synthetic tryptophan byproducts. After eating that food, the mice’s disease-related paralysis was reversed, the researchers report.

In another test, mice had “fewer relapses and less severe disease” after eating the experimental food, the researchers write.

Basically, the byproducts ordered the mice’s out-of-control immune system to calm down. They did that by boosting chemicals that regulate the immune system. That blocked the mice’s disease from launching a dangerous cascade of T cells.

The byproducts weren’t tested on people. The results may point the way to the creation of a new class of drugs for MS and other diseases, the researchers write.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Platten, M. Science, Nov. 4, 2005; vol 310: pp 850-855. News release, Science. WebMD Medical Reference from “What to Eat if You Have Cancer”: “Protein and Cancer.”