EU funds research consortium seeking causes of MS, treatments

How EBV, other viruses interact with immune system to drive MS to be studied

Mary Chapman avatar

by Mary Chapman |

Share this article:

Share article via email
A scientist works with a petri dish in a lab, alongside a rack of four vials filled with liquid.

The European Union (EU) is providing 7.1 million euros (about $7.6 million) over five years to a global interdisciplinary consortium that seeks to identify the causes of multiple sclerosis (MS) — with a particular focus on viruses — and find new treatments for the disease.

The “BEHIND MS” consortium, led by the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), was funded through the HORIZON Europe research funding program. The consortium is made up of 12 partner institutions from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium.

“This research holds the promise of advancing our understanding and treatment options for MS, thereby bringing us closer to enhancing the quality of life of people with MS,” Elisabeth Kasilingam, CEO of the European Multiple Sclerosis Platform, said in a press release.

The research team will seek to better understand the causes of inflammation-related nerve damage in MS, thought to affect about 1 million people in Europe and 2.8 million worldwide. This damage can lead to a range of MS symptoms, such as severe visual impairment or balance issues and trouble walking.

Recommended Reading
A scientist works in a lab, holding a filled dropper as test tubes are set up nearby.

QData MS Research Platform Aims for Better Patient Treatment, Care

Role of EBV, other viruses in MS to be studied

The consortium will also study how viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may interact with the immune system to drive the onset and progression of MS. Last year, a study combining two decades of data from more than 10 million military members found that EBV infection raises the risk of developing MS by 32 times, making it the strongest risk factor known to date.

“This is extremely strong evidence that the virus is causally involved in the disease,” said Catarina Veroni and Roberta Magliozzi, neuropathologists who specialize in MS. “This result was an important clue for us to be able to plan further research projects.”

While EBV will infect the majority of people at some point in their lives, most will have only minor symptoms. After an infection, however, the virus remains dormant inside immune B-cells, which is believed to make them more active and prone to target nerve cells.

The association between EBV and MS is thought to arise due to a structural similarity between certain EBV and brain proteins, meaning an immune response that targets the virus can also mistakenly go after healthy brain tissue, possibly leading to MS. Some other herpes viruses also have been linked to an increased risk of MS.

The Belgium-based MS platform, a European umbrella organization that advocates for people living with MS across the EU, and a BEHIND-MS consortium partner, said that while MS therapies continue to improve, those that target the immune system aren’t always effective.

It maintains a better understanding of the connection between MS and EBV is needed, including whether the immune cells of those infected with the virus can efficiently reduce the number of EBV-infected cells, or whether such an attempt would lead to an immune system overreaction.

To achieve that, the consortium will seek to develop new and more precise cell and animal models to study viral interactions with their host cells. Specifically, it plans to develop models in which the interactions of viruses and immune and nerve cells can be tracked under conditions that are as close to nature as possible. The scientists will then use such systems to test varying hypotheses on MS development, including those that don’t focus exclusively on the immune system.

The consortium will also make extensive use of artificial intelligence and statistical methods to search for genetic or infectious co-factors that promote disease development, which may help identify people with an elevated risk. The overarching goal is to identify biomarkers that signal specific stages of MS progression, which could lead to improved treatments.