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MS Researchers make exciting progress in a challenging year

  • MS Research Australia is currently funding 62 MS research projects, with extensions funded to support research disrupted by the pandemic.
  • Every year, each funded researcher provides MS Research Australia with an update on their research progress.
  • Australian MS researchers have made amazing progress in 2020 despite the challenges towards finding causes and prevention, better treatments, and cures through repair or regeneration of cells.

MS Research Australia is currently funding 62 research projects covering a range of MS research priorities, including causes and prevention, better treatments and reversal of disability through repair or regeneration of cells. None of this research would be possible without the ongoing support of the MS community, donors, funding partners and the MS State organisations. Each year, researchers funded by MS Research Australia provide a detailed report on their progress. Here are some of the research highlights – just a fraction of the incredible progress that you have made possible.

MS progression: your genes are not your fate

Over the last year, Dr Vilija Jokubaitis completed her 3-year project to see if a person’s genetics can help predict whether they are likely to develop mild, moderate or severe MS. This work was co-funded by MS Angels Melbourne, Charity Works for MS and the Industry Superannuation Property Trust. Collaborating with neurologists and geneticists around the world, Dr Jokubaitis examined more than five million genetic variants in over 1800 people. She confirmed two genes were associated with the age at which people develop MS, but did not find any genes that influence MS severity. What this suggests is that the severity of MS is not under strong genetic control. That is, your genes are not your fate as there are other factors involved. It tells us that outcomes can be modified by appropriate use of MS therapies, and also likely, by various environmental factors.

Maximising body and mind health in MS

Understanding the factors we can modify to optimise health and wellbeing in MS is an important goal of several current research projects.

Smoking

Dr Claudia Marck is exploring the experience of smoking in MS in a current MS Research Australia funded research project. She interviewed people with MS regarding smoking and their current health beliefs She identified that many people did not know that smoking can worsen their MS, in addition to exacerbating anxiety, depression and other health problems. Her findings have also attracted further funding from Quit Victoria and the University of Melbourne. This funding will help to develop better resources to educate people about the effects of smoking in MS, and provide practical assistance to stop smoking and improve overall health and wellness.

Mental health

Dr Lisa Grech is a psychologist and MS researcher, who also lives with MS. Her work aims to address the higher rates of depression in people with MS, which are two to three times that of the general population. Dr Grech’s interviews with neurologists, MS nurses and people with MS have uncovered barriers to effective treatment. In some cases, people with MS did not recognise that they had  symptoms of depression or that effective help was available to manage depression. Going forward, Dr Grech is looking at whether a brief screening tool to be used by health care professionals might help with better detection of depression in the MS population, as well as developing recommendations to improve the outcomes for people with MS experiencing depression.

Diet

Several researchers funded by MS Research Australia are working towards understanding how diet might play a role in how MS progresses, and in improving general health in people with MS. Associate Professor Lucinda Black has found that while high amounts of highly processed food increase the likelihood of MS, an anti-inflammatory diet may help reduce the likelihood of MS in women. Associate Professor Black, whose project is co-funded by MSWA, is now examining dietary factors associated with disease progression. Alice Saul’s PhD project, co-funded by the Penn Foundation, explores whether diet can reduce MS relapses and progression (measured by MRI) and other MS symptoms such as fatigue. Ultimately it is hoped that these projects will help us to better understand the role of diet in MS and the changes that can be made to improve health.

Gut bacteria

Recent years have seen a growing interest in the effect of the gut bacteria, or “gut microbiome”, on the immune system, and the use of diet and probiotics to attempt to alter the microbiome in human health. Associate Professor Laurence Macia has been studying the influence of gut bacteria in laboratory models of MS, with co-funding from the MS Angels. Gut bacteria can have a powerful effect on reducing inflammation in the body. Associate Professor Macia is studying a molecule made by gut bacteria, called butyrate, that binds to a sensor molecule on immune cells called GPR109A. She has shown that lack of butyrate or GPR109A reduces the severity of disease in the laboratory. Her ongoing work is looking more deeply at how this happens, and whether targeting this pathway in immune cells might be a new option in treating MS. Her follow up project is examining how controlling diet components (such as carbohydrate, protein and fat) might reduce disease severity in laboratory models of MS.

Developing and testing new treatment options for MS

Professor Sanjay Swaminathan is studying Epstein Barr virus (EBV) infection. We currently know that infection with EBV is necessary for the development of MS and has been implicated in MS disease processes. Professor Swaminathan has shown that EBV interacts with human genes that increase the risk of MS and can “hijack” these genes by switching them on or off. In this project, Professor Swaminathan has shown that EBV can be prevented from hijacking human genes, using a chemical that interferes with an EBV protein. He is now designing new molecules that have this same effect and could potentially be safe for use in humans in the future.

Dr Jennifer Massey is researching autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (AHSCT) for MS in a clinical trial. AHSCT involves administering chemotherapy to remove immune cells that are attacking the brain and spinal cord, and replacing them afterwards with a regenerated immune system, that is more ‘self-tolerant’ and less likely to continue attacking the body and progressing MS. MS Research Australia, with the MS Angels, is funding Dr Massey’s Fellowship to look at how AHSCT alters the immune system. She has found that depletion of immune cells by chemotherapy stimulates regrowth of a particular type of immune cell that can suppress autoimmunity. The favourable changes to the immune system persist three years after the transplant, even once the immune cell numbers in the blood return to normal. You can read more about Dr Massey’s latest findings on pregnancy and AHSCT here.

More information

Full details on the progress of all projects that we are currently funding can be found here.

To help us continue to fund vital MS research projects like these, please consider leaving a donation.

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MS Researchers make exciting progress in a challenging year