6 Exciting Developments in Multiple Sclerosis Research

Multiple sclerosis (commonly referred to as MS) is a disease where the immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord, causing an array of symptoms that range from mild to severe. Fatigue is the most common, along with pain and cognitive changes, while tremors, hearing loss, and seizures are less common but do occur.

Today, about 2.3 million people have some form of MS. And the number of diagnoses seems to be on the rise in recent years.

Why Are More People Being Diagnosed?

No one knows for sure exactly why MS diagnoses are increasing. But Bruce Bebo, PhD, Executive Vice President of Research for the National MS Society, points out that it may not be because more people are actually developing the disease. Instead, he thinks itís possible that more people who have it are getting properly diagnosed, thanks to greater awareness of the disease, better access to medical care, and improved diagnostic capabilities.

6 Important MS Research Topics

Regardless of the reason, as greater numbers of MS patients are identified, more research is needed to understand the disease and how best to treat it. Here are six areas that scientists are currently focusing on:

1. The Sex Puzzle: Although both women and men can get MS, Bebo says that the disease is two to three times more common in females. But what makes some women more susceptible than others?

Itís likely a combination of factors, but a new study from Johns Hopkins found that women with MS may have a lower intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients and antioxidants like folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin E. This could make them more vulnerable to illness; inflammation causes nerve damage in MS patients. "Itís not clear from this study whether these differences result from inflammation, or [if the differences actually] trigger the inflammation," Bebo says. But the link between womenís nutrient intake and MS is an area that warrants more research in the future.

2. Diet Matters: Diet is a big topic in MS research: "Researchers are pursuing [other] important leads relating to dietófor example, that vitamin D levels may be linked to MS risk, that childhood obesity increases MS risk, or that salt intake may trigger inflammation," Bebo says. All of these theories are being looked at to gain a deeper understanding of MS triggers and find better ways to head off the disease.

3. Gut Facts: Another potential breakthrough on the MS front comes from Australian researchers, who believe that common bacteria in the gut can help protect against MS. As Bebo explains, the gut contains billions of harmless bacteria, which research suggests helps keep the immune system balanced; the idea is that gut bacteria may play a role in the immune system attacks common in MS. "We are funding several researchers who are pursuing this lead to determine if gut bacteria differ in people with MS, and if altering bacteria can affect the course of disease."

4. Lifestyle Issues: "Increasing evidence suggests that lifestyle factors help influence whether a person develops MS, and may also influence disease course and quality of life," Bebo says. What subjects intrigue MS researchers? Bebo cites "rehabilitation techniques, exercise, diet, complementary therapies, and other factors that will address the most crucial concerns of people who live with MS," as important subjects.

5. Stem Cell Therapies: Scientists are also exploring the promise of stem cell research, though no stem cell therapies have yet been approved to treat MS. "Although small, early studies have been published, larger and longer controlled studies are needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of using stem cells to treat MS," Bebo notes. "We need to determine what the optimal cells, delivery methods, safety, and actual effectiveness of these current experimental therapies might be for different people with MS."

6. Treatment Options: The need to develop new treatments to better prevent, control, and reduce the progression of MS is always a priority. Bebo says, "There are 12 disease-modifying therapies approved for treating MS, largely focusing on the relapsing forms of MS." (These include relapsing-remitting MS, progressive-relapsing MS, and secondary-progressive MS with relapses.) Recently, two new treatments were recently approved: One is an injectable medication taken every two weeks, while the other is administered intravenously for several consecutive days twice a year.

Looking Forward

The good news for people with MS and their families is that so many new and promising developments are currently underway to prevent and treat MS. "Researchers are stepping up to the plate, forming collaborations across the U.S. and even worldwide to address these issues, and these collaborations promise to move this research forward exponentially," Bebo points out.

"Significant progress is being made both in treating MS relapses and in understanding the forces in the genes and environment that combine to cause MS. But we need to find therapies that stop and reverse MS progression, and we need to learn more about the risks, triggers, and biological responses causing MS so that prevention becomes a reality."

To stay on top of the latest research news and developments on MS, you can visit the National MS Societyís website at nationalmssociety.org.

Bruce Bebo, PhD, National MS Society, reviewed this article.

Sources

Bruce Bebo, PhD, Executive Vice President of Research for the National MS Society. Email interview, March 1, 2015.

Allan Kermode, Marzena Fabis Pedrini, et al. "Helicobacter Pylori Infection as a Protective Factor Against Multiple Sclerosis Risk in Females." Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2015. Published online January 19, 2015.