MS Society Invests in Research into Underlying Causes of Disease

Patricia Silva, PhD avatar

by Patricia Silva, PhD |

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The Multiple Sclerosis Society (MS Society) in the United Kingdom recently announced the investment of £1.98 million in new MS research. The 16 projects awarded funding through the MS Society’s 2015 grant round were thoroughly evaluated in a rigorous review process.

In total, 58 projects applied for MS Society grants this year. All applications were reviewed by a panel of experts who assessed the projects in terms of high scientific quality, sound evidence base, and alignment with the MS Society’s research strategy. In addition, the applications were reviewed by individuals living with MS as a way to guarantee that those selected were of relevance to people directly suffering directly from this condition.

In the end, 16 projects secured  a total of £1,979,879 in funding and can be divided into four categories: cause, cure, care and services, and symptom management, and are expected to get underway in the coming months.

Six projects were related to research on the underlying causes of MS. One, entitled “Establishing a zebrafish model to study brain inflammation” and led by Dr. Anne Astier at the University of Edinburgh, received £36,622. The goal of this project is to investigate the role of CD46, a protein present in some immune T cells that move into the brain and attack the protective myelin sheath covering nerve fibers, causing inflammation. CD46 is known to be involved in this process, and the team hypothesized that this protein might not be properly activated in MS. Researchers will use zebrafish as an animal model to conduct their studies in a living organism. This project is especially important because some MS therapies are based on an interaction with the CD46 molecule and the blockade of immune cell migration into the brain. A better understanding of this process might help optimize treatment, making it more specific and reducing possible side effects.

Another project, titled “Does vitamin D control the movement of immune cells?,” also led by Dr. Astier, was awarded £98,904 and will focus on how immune T cells migrate into the brain and spinal cord, and the possibility that vitamin D may be involved in controlling such processes.

A third project, led by Dr. Ferdia Gallagher, from the University of Cambridge, was awarded £39,900 and is titled “A new way to measure metabolism in the brain.” This project aims to assess a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique, known as hyperpolarized carbon-13 MRI, to measure brain alterations in MS patients. Dr. Gallagher expects to use this technique to detect changes in metabolism (namely in sugar metabolism) which are thought to happen much earlier in MS patients than the structural changes and lesions characteristic of the disease. This technique has the potential to be a more sensitive tool for an MS diagnosis in earlier stages.

Another focuses on the role of chemokines, small signaling molecules, in MS. This project, awarded £282,279, is led by Professor Richard Reynolds from the Imperial College London and titled “The role of chemokines in nerve loss in Multiple Sclerosis.” Chemokines are produced in the brain as a response to nerve exposure to toxic molecules, and their levels are known to be higher in patients with progressive MS. However, the role of these chemokines, beneficial or harmful, is not clear. Professor Reynolds wants to determine whether these chemokines are linked to disease severity or changes in MS pathogenesis. The project is especially relevant since it might bring new insights into the mechanisms causing nerve damage in progressive MS and help develop new therapeutic approaches.

A fifth project, awarded £297,145, is titled “Finding the master MS genes” and led by Professor Stephen Sawcer from the University of Cambridge. Its aim is to identify key genes, also called master regulators, which control the immune cell response in MS patients. The team plans to create a network of groups of immune cells and gene expression maps based on 190 different types of immune cells isolated from 100 individuals (50 MS patients and 50 healthy controls). The identification of master regulators in these networks may offer new targets for MS therapies.

The last project awarded under the MS underlying causes theme is entitled “The role of HLA-DR and vitamin D in MS.” This  project received £61,919 and is led by Dr. Robert Busch from Roehampton University. Its goal is to investigate the link between MS development and the gene HLA-DR, which is known to regulate the immune system. Furthermore, it has been reported that vitamin D can directly influence the activity of genes that control HLA-DR, so the research team will also investigate how vitamin D affects HLA-DR and contributes to MS pathogenesis.

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