MS affects the ability of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to communicate with each other. Nerve cells communicate by sending electrical signals called action potentials down long fibers called axons, which are wrapped in an insulating substance called myelin. In MS, the body's own immune system attacks and damages the myelin. When myelin is lost, the axons can no longer effectively conduct signals. The name multiple sclerosis refers to scars (scleroses—better known as plaques or lesions) in the white matter of the brain and spinal cord, which is mainly composed of myelin. Although much is known about the mechanisms involved in the disease process, the cause remains unknown. Theories include genetics or infections. Different environmental risk factors have also been found.
And now new hope for sufferers with an Israeli team headed by Prof. Anat Achiron (photo on the left) of Tel Aviv University and vice-dean of research at Sheba Medical Center, has discovered a new way of detecting MS years earlier than the standard testing methods.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an equal opportunity destroyer. It attacks the central nervous system and eventually renders most patients disabled. Among its high-profile victims are celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose career was ended by MS, and Joan Didion, a famous American writer.While not a cure, or even the prospect for a cure in the near future, it is the start towards one. And with early diagnosis there is hope that early treatment regimens will help alleviate some of the suffering associated with MS. And just perhaps the long awaited breakthrough in solving the puzzle of MS will arise from this study. May it happen soon!
The National MS Society estimates that there are currently about 400,000 cases in the U.S. and more than 2 million people suffer from the disease over the world. Although there is currently no cure, a breakthrough finding from a Tel Aviv University scientist and physician may lead to earlier diagnosis, more effective intervention, and perhaps even a cure for the autoimmune disease.
Prof. Anat Achiron of Tel Aviv University and vice-dean of research at Sheba Medical Center has uncovered a new way of detecting MS in the blood through her research at Sheba. The findings, just published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, are expected to pave the way for a diagnosis of MS before symptoms can appear, allowing for earlier treatment.
“We are not yet able to treat people with MS to prevent the onset of the disease but knowledge is power,” Prof. Achiron says. “Every time we meet a new patient exhibiting symptoms of MS, we must ask ourselves how long this has been going on. We can diagnose MS by brain MRI, but we’ve never been able to know how ‘fresh’ the disease is,” she says.
If doctors can predict the onset of MS early enough, intervention therapies using immunomodulatory drugs such as Copaxone or beta-interferon drugs that stave off MS symptoms might be used.
“We theorized that if we looked at the gene expression signature of blood cells in healthy people, we could look for possible biological markers that characterize those who subsequently developed MS,” says Prof. Achiron.
Examining blood samples of twenty 19-year-old Israelis who were inducted into the army as healthy soldiers, and the nine of them who later developed MS, Prof. Achiron and her team at Sheba were able to use a “high throughput analysis” using more than 12,000 gene transcripts expressions. The screening compared similarities and differences in the blood of those who developed MS and those who did not, eventually establishing biological markers.
“Those who will develop MS will show a different blood signature from those who will not,” says Prof. Achiron. “When we compared the gene expression signatures, we saw a similar pattern of the same working biological processes.”
These early genetic markers may now be used to test for multiple sclerosis up to nine years before healthy young adults start developing symptoms. And because MS is thought to have a genetic component and a tendency to be found in siblings, Prof. Achiron says the biomarkers can be used as a tool for brothers and sisters of patients.
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