Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Researchers discover hidden pieces to the MS puzzle

Could you imagine your own body’s defence system targeting the very thing it is designed to protect?

(Granovsky, D 2011)

Unfortunately this is the reality for many people diagnosed with the disease, Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Over 20,000 people in Australia and 2.5 million worldwide have MS (MS Research Australia 2012).  It’s an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks the central nervous system (CNS), causing inflammation and damage to the insulating tissue layer of nerve fibres called myelin. The myelin facilitates the communication between nerve cells. Once this layer is damaged a build up of plaque forms, impairing the signal along the nerve pathway to the brain. The health problems associated with MS are therefore dependant on the area and extent of damage to the CNS. Additionally, the effects of the disease can come and go sporadically making it difficult to manage and understand for both researchers and sufferers alike (Kalb 2011, pp. 7-9).

(MS Research Australia 2012)

A study undertaken by the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium (IMSGC), has lead a collaboration of 250 scientists, from 15 countries, to the discovery of 57 genes which play a major role in MS. A trend seen throughout the study highlights the activity these genes have in the immune response (most importantly T cells) and that the reasons for getting the disease mainly results from inherited changes in the immune system (The University of Melbourne 2011).

T Cells are known as the directors of the immune system. They can function in two ways, one as killer cells by releasing toxic chemicals directly into invading cells, or two they can talk to other cells involved in the immune response, initiating the start and end of an attack on foreign cells. Although the destruction of normal cells by processes of the immune system is not fully understood (Iezzoni, LI 2010, p.44), the link from the consortiums research to specific genes in this stage offers a stepping stone to further studies in the future.

(Skutelnik, N 2012)

In previous studies carried out in Australia a correlation between low levels of Vitamin D and a high risk factor of MS has been found. The IMSGC discovered another vitamin D gene, further supporting the idea that MS is not only controlled by genetics but also the environment (The University of Melbourne 2011). Researchers have found the number of people affected by MS drops off, the closer to the equator they live, possibly due to more time spent in the sun and higher levels of ultra violet radiation. Given the body synthesises vitamin D when the skin comes into contact with the sun, this could therefore assist in the prevention of MS (Iezzoni, LI 2010, p.37).

There are still so many hidden reasons to the cause of MS and the role the recently discovered genes will play in the disease could take some time to reveal. This presents many opportunities for the future treatment of patients currently suffering from MS and generates a new focus for clinical trials. Hopefully the key to unlock the answers to MS is found within the genes in the not too distant future.

Reference List

Granovsky, D 2011, The Stem Cell Blog, viewed 18 March 2011,

Iezzoni, LI 2010, Multiple Sclerosis, Greenwood, California.

Kalb, R 2011, Multiple Sclerosis: The Questions You Have-The Answers You Need, 5th Edn, Demos Health, New York.

MS Research Australia 2012, Living with MS: Quick Facts about MS, viewed 18 March 2011,

Skutelnik, N 2012, Suntan, Kidzworld, viewed 18 March 2011,

The University of Melbourne 2011, Breakthrough research holds clues about MS cause, Viewed 16 March 2011,

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