MS Society of Canada announces $3.8 million to study progressive forms of multiple sclerosis

The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation announced a $3.8 million grant to investigate the complex interplay between degeneration and inflammation in multiple sclerosis (MS). The grant will fund a three year study led by Dr. Peter Stys from the University of Calgary that will investigate damage that occurs in MS prior to inflammation. This research may have special relevance for those with progressive forms of MS.

Research to date, has largely attributed central nervous system (CNS) damage in MS to an autoimmune attack in which inflammation causes the hallmark patches of demyelination (also called plaques or lesions). Dr. Stys' research hypothesizes that an underlying mechanism causes degeneration that prompts the inflammatory process, leading to additional degeneration. Through a series of rigorous experiments using the animal model of MS (EAE) and human autopsy and biopsy tissues, Dr. Stys and his team expect to gain a better understanding of early triggers in the disease process and hope to discover a method by which to intervene and prevent the damage that occurs before an inflammatory response.

In general, progressive disease is characterized by a non-inflammatory neurodegenerative process. Approximately 10 per cent of people with MS are diagnosed with primary progressive MS. A more common type of progressive MS is secondary progressive MS – which begins as relapsing remitting MS, but then transitions to a progressive course. Fifty per cent of those with an initial diagnosis of relapsing MS eventually develop secondary progressive MS within ten years of diagnosis.

"The important roles of autoimmunity and the damage of inflammation are undeniable. But this doesn't mean that this is the starting point. If we can understand more about the earliest triggers in the disease processes in MS, we might learn how to intervene and prevent the damage that occurs prior to an inflammatory response," Dr. Stys says. "This research could provide information that benefits both relapsing remitting and progressive forms of MS."

Currently in Canada, there are seven disease-modifying treatments approved for relapsing forms of MS. However, despite best efforts, little progress has been made to date in the disease management of primary progressive MS or secondary progressive MS without relapses.

"We urgently need research that tackles the challenges unique to the progressive forms of MS," says Karen Lee, vice-president of research, MS Society of Canada. "Our hope is that Dr. Stys and his team of research collaborators will help us find answers. Can we identify the mechanisms that cause damage associated with progressive MS? Will the results lead to the development of new therapies that prevent, delay or slow progressive MS? This research may help answer these questions."

"There are often good news stories about treatments for relapsing-remitting MS and little to hope for with respect to progressive MS," says Michelle Amerie, who was diagnosed with MS over thirty years ago. "It's a relief to know that researchers from across the country are working together to try and understand the progressive form of MS. It makes me feel supported, gives me some hope."

While there are currently no effective medical treatments for progressive MS without relapses, it is possible to alleviate many symptoms, to improve some functions, and compensate for disabilities and thus improve quality of life. Visit the MS Society of Canada website for more information: /progressive-ms

The MS Society will provide further information on Dr. Stys and his research team when updates become available.