Hope for Narcolepsy Cure Despite Research Paper Retraction

In December 2013 the research team led by Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, of Stanford University, published a paper in Science Translational Medicine confirming that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease. In late in July, however, the team retracted the paper due its inability to reproduce the key findings of the study.

Reproducibility is an important element of scientific research. Experiments need to produce the same outcome multiple times – preferably by different labs – for scientists to consider the results reliable.

WUN has for several years and continues to fund the research of Dr. Mignot, one of the world’s foremost narcolepsy experts.

The now-retracted paper purported to demonstrate that a protein found in the brain – hypocretin, or orexin – which helps keep us alert and awake, was similar enough to a protein in the H1N1 influenza virus that the body’s immune system could occasionally mistake it for the virus and send T cells to destroy hypocretin-secreting neurons, thus inducing narcolepsy.

These results would have explained the increases in narcolepsy following Pandemrix flu vaccinations in Europe in 2009, particularly among young people. Earlier studies suggested that the adjuvant used in the Pandemrix vaccine (which was not administered in the United States) might have been to blame. The paper suggested that immune cells primed by the Pandemrix shot were attacking brain neurons that produce hypocretin – resulting in narcolepsy.

Although we in the narcolepsy community are disappointed by this turn of events, we are hopeful that research scientists such as Dr. Mignot will continue to pursue a full understanding of the molecular mechanisms of narcolepsy. We are confident that this work will lead to improved diagnostic tools and treatment, and one day to a cure.