. Scientific Frontline: Propionic acid protects nerve cells and supports their regeneration

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Propionic acid protects nerve cells and supports their regeneration

Thomas Grüter and Kalliopi Pitarokoili (right) from the study team in St. Josef Hospital.
Photo Credit: RUB, Marquard

Some autoimmune diseases attack the nerves in the arms and legs. Researchers from Bochum are taking a new approach to counteract this damage.

In laboratory tests, researchers from St. Josef Hospital Bochum showed that propionate, the salt of a short-chain fatty acid, can protect nerves and help with their regeneration. The findings could be useful for the treatment of autoimmune diseases that damage nerve cells, such as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP). Propionate naturally arises in the intestine when fiber is broken down. In previous studies, a team from the same department from St. Josef Hospital Bochum, clinic of the Ruhr University Bochum, has already proven that people with multiple sclerosis (MS) have a lack of propionate and can benefit from additional propionate intake. Accordingly, the substance could also be useful for patients with CIDP.

A group led by Dr. Thomas Grüter and private lecturer Dr. Kalliopi Pitarokoili from the Neurological University Clinic on St. Josef Hospital (Head of Prof. Dr. Ralf Gold), in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Nerve cell growth with (left) and without propionate (right)
Image Credit: Dr. Thomas Grüter and Niklas Rilke

Propionate reduces cell death in cell culture experiments

People with CIDP suffer from emotional disorders, muscle weakness and pain. The cause of the disease is not fully understood. The immune system attacks the nerves in the arms and legs. The nerve sheath, an insulating sheathing of the nerve cells, is broken down, and finally the cells die. "Currently available drugs are very expensive and have a particular impact on the immune system," says Thomas Grüter. “So far, nerve-protecting and regenerative therapy has not been available."

In the current study, the team led by Thomas Grüter was now researching the protective effects of propionate in cell culture and in animal experiments. The group isolated the two most important cell types in the peripheral nervous system from rats: nerve cells and Schwann cells; the latter form the sheathing of the nerve cells.

The scientists cultivated the two cell types separately from one another and exposed them to oxidative stress, which usually leads to damage to the cells. The team treated some cell cultures with propionate and compared the effects with untreated cultures. Significantly fewer cells died in the treated cultures. In addition, the cells grew better after treatment than without propionate administration. These results were confirmed in animal experiments: after taking propionate, the nerve cells were better protected against oxidative damage.

The team that conducted the study in Bochum: Niklas Rilke, Katharina Lemhoefer, Kalliopi Pitarokoili, Melissa Sgodzai, Nuwin Mohamad, Xiomara Pedreiturria, Thomas Grüter, Alina Blusch (from left).
Photo Credit: RUB, Marquard

Insights into mechanism of action

The researchers also gained new insights into the mechanism of the propionate effect. They showed that the substance addresses the FFAR3 receptor on the surface of nerve cells and Schwann cells and also influences the reading of the DNA via histone molecules. This creates new enzymes and proteins that protect against harmful influences and help repair damage.

Background: Studies with MS patients showed positive effects of propionate

Results from previous studies with MS patients had given the Bochum researchers the idea that propionate could have a favorable effect on CIDP patients. The working group around Prof. Dr. Aiden Haghikia had shown that the Taking propionate has an anti-inflammatory effect in people with multiple sclerosis and reduces the thrust rate.

Published in journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Source/CreditRuhr University Bochum

Reference Number: ns012423_02

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