Irish researchers have made a major breakthrough in the treatment of the deadly motor neuron disease, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as it is often known.

The research team at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland have discovered how the body protects itself against the onset of motor neuron disease.

A report in the Irish Times says that the breakthrough will immediately open up new treatment options.

Further research is already showing that symptoms can be reduced and life expectancy can be increased in mice that develop motor neuron disease according to research team leader Professor Jochen Prehn.

He told the Irish Times, “It is significantly better than the best current treatment. You can significantly delay the onslaught of the symptoms and improve survival.”

Motor neurone disease is a progressive and fatal degenerative disease where the nerve cells that carry information between muscles and the brain – motor neurons – begin to die. Medical research has yet to discover how this happens.

The report states that five years ago, Irish geneticists Professor Orla Hardiman and Professor Andrew Green discovered a mutated gene that seemed to be associated with motor neuron disease. The gene produced a protein called angiogenin.

Prof Prehn’s group have since focused on angiogenin and became the first to explain how the protein was involved in protecting motor neurons from becoming damaged.

Their research is published in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Professor Prehn said: “The work related to angiogenin is a completely Irish success given the initial discovery and later work happened here.

“If motor neurons break down in a healthy individual, angiogenin is released. It acts like an instant survival factor.

“The protein machinery is turned on. It helps the surrounding tissue to regenerate or grow new blood vessels or deliver more energy.

“Several factors are released by this machinery, helping to keep the motor neurons healthy so they can continue to support muscle control. Angiogenin in those who develop motor neuron disease is absent or might not work properly.”

The Irish Times report states that Professor Prehn’s group were the first to reveal how angiogenin works to protect the neurons. But this also threw up possibilities for new kinds of treatments.

He added that the researchers now plan to study the various protective factors released by the neurons to better understand how they help neighbouring cells.