A professor of neurology and neurological sciences and chair of the immunology program, Steinman, MD, and his lab generally focus on high-tech genetic therapies for diseases of the brain and nervous system. But his latest paper, to be published in the Nov. 4 issue of Science, breaks new ground on the effects of tryptophan - an amino acid found in turkey, among other foods, that is rumored to cause extreme post-Thanksgiving-feast sleepiness. It was featured in "Seinfeld" as a way for Jerry to knock out a woman by feeding her turkey so he could play with her classic toy collection.
The myth of tryptophan in turkey causing inordinate sleepiness has been debunked (tryptophan only works on the brain when ingested on an empty stomach). But the amino acid itself does play a vital role in sleep and in control of mood. And Steinman's findings add to the growing body of evidence indicating that tryptophan plays a pivotal role in the immune system.
In an animal model, Steinman's group has found that certain tryptophan metabolites - molecules formed as the body breaks down the amino acid - work as well as any other existing medicines to alleviate multiple sclerosis symptoms. In multiple sclerosis, the immune system launches an attack against the myelin sheath, the fatty cells that insulate neurons. The resulting variety of neurological disorders affects more than 2.5 million people worldwide.
Soothing the overactive immune system of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis requires something that can suppress the attack. In their studies, the team discovered that a drug chemically similar to metabolized tryptophan is suppressive to the immune system. This drug, marketed as tranilast, has been used abroad in clinical trials for other indications and
Contact: Mitzi Baker
Stanford University Medical Center