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UoE scientists part of global effort to research causes of MS

ByEthan DeWitt

Sep 23, 2014

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have partnered with a new global alliance of scientists aiming to better research the causes of multiple sclerosis (MS) and develop more effective therapies for its treatment.

The collaboration, known as the Progressive MS Alliance, seeks to fund and collate 22 separate studies spanning nine countries at some of the top research institutes in the world.

Edinburgh scientists will participate alongside colleagues from as far afield as Stanford University, McGill, Cambridge and Umeå University in Sweden.

The Alliance, announced at an MS conference in Boston this month, strives to “speed up the development of treatment for progressive MS by removing scientific and technology borders.”

To compliment its ambitious scope, the project has access to considerable funds.

A consortium of charities including the MS Society in UK and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the US has collectively raised £17 million for the five-year effort.

Spearheading the Edinburgh research effort at the University’s Centre for Neuroregeneration is Dr Don Mahad, senior clinical research fellow at the centre, whose project will investigate DNA mutations found in degenerating nerve cells of patients with MS.

From an applicant field of 195 proposals, the Alliance selected the 12-month project for its first tranche of research funding last week.

The project was awarded £59,000.

“It’s a very exciting time to get involved with researching progressive MS,” Mahad told The Student.

He said: “It’s pretty much a blank sheet; we know very little about it and what to do about it.”

Multiple sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disease in which the body wrongly attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain, damaging their protective coating and causing them to malfunction.

The results are unpredictable and can engender a variety of impairments, both physical and neurological. As neurons are incapable of reproducing, the damaged cells can never be replaced, rendering the disease permanent.

Whilst therapies do exist to mitigate symptoms and improve quality of life, at present there is no cure.

In his research, Mahad aims to find answers for one of the more troublesome aspects of the disease: the propensity for the damaged nerve cells to degenerate over time and die, resulting in a progressive MS that gradually worsens.

Studies have linked this regressive behaviour to genetic dysfunctions with the cell’s mitochondria, the “powerhouse” organelles that keep the cell operating.

“The more the genetic mitochondrial mutations occur, the more rapidly the MS progresses,” he explained.

“It leads to energy failure, and eventually neurodegeneration.”

By examining the DNA mutations affecting the mitochondria, Mahad hopes to determine the extent to which these mutations are intrinsic to MS.

That, in turn, could lead to protection treatments.

Even before its participation in the Alliance grants, the university’s neuroregeneration department was well-heeled. In 2010, author J.K. Rowling donated £10 million to establish the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, a university research institute dedicated to her mother, who died at a young age from the disease.

On top of backing Mahad’s DNA research, the clinic engages in various clinical trials to improve treatment methods and techniques.

Multiple sclerosis occurs most commonly among 20 to 40-year-olds, and is more frequently present in women than in men. For reasons yet unknown, it has an abnormally high occurrence in Scotland.

In 2013, the Atlas of MS estimated the disease to afflict 10,000 residents in the country, or 164 people out of every 100,000.


By Ethan DeWitt


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