Tiny Molecules in Blood Could Be Biomarkers of MS Progression, Study Says

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by Joana Fernandes, PhD |

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Multiple sclerosis research

MicroRNAs in the blood could serve as biomarkers to monitor the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as help identify which mechanisms are at play in each patient, such as inflammation and tissue damage, according to new research.

The findings were reported in the study, “Association Between Serum MicroRNAs and Magnetic Resonance Imaging Measures Of Multiple Sclerosis Severity.” It was published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

MicroRNAs are tiny RNA molecules that can control gene expression and regulate protein production. They have the ability to bind to an mRNA molecule (a copy of the coding information required to produce a protein) and block production of a given protein. MicroRNAs can bind to many different mRNA molecules, which makes them powerful regulators.

Although microRNAs are produced within the cells, where they function, some can be secreted into several body fluids. They are highly resistant to degradation, so circulating microRNAs could be ideal biomarkers to follow the progression of certain diseases.

Karen Regev, MD, of Harvard Medical School, and her colleagues previously demonstrated that MS patients had a specific set of microRNAs in their blood, and that those molecules could be biomarkers to diagnose the disease. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they’ve now found that those microRNAs are correlated with brain and spinal damage.

Their study enrolled two groups of MS patients (41 in one group, 79 in the other), and researchers compared the microRNAs in the patients’ blood samples to the brain and spinal lesions detected in the MRIs.

Results showed some microRNAs were protective (associated with less damage), while others were harmful and linked to brain and spinal cord injury. In addition, different microRNAs were associated with different damage locations.

The team also found that specific microRNAs were associated with lesions or atrophy. Their presence could help doctors identify which mechanisms are at play in each patient.

“These findings tell us the disease is heterogeneous,” Rohit Bakshi, MD, MA, one of the study’s senior authors, said in a news release. “There’s a complex set of mechanisms at play, and it may vary from patient to patient.”

“Another implication of this research is that it could eventually lead to us having a blood test to identify the subtype of MS in a patient, to help guide therapeutic decisions and prognosis,” he added.

Researchers emphasized that more studies are necessary to validate their results.

“MicroRNAs could serve as biomarkers of the underlying MS disease processes, once validated and standardized for clinical settings,” said Roopali Gandhi, PhD, the study’s other senior author. “In addition, these markers have the potential to provide novel treatment targets.”

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