“Innovation in MS research and treatment over the last two decades has led to faster diagnoses, better disease management – 2015 marked 20 years since the approval of the first disease-modifying therapy for relapsing-remitting MS in Canada – and real hope that ending MS within our lifetime is achievable,” says Dr. Karen Lee, vice president, research, MS Society of Canada. “In particular, last year we saw tangible advancement in the areas of progressive MS, wellness and lifestyle, discovering more about the possible triggers of MS and new treatment opportunities with the use of stem cells.”
The following is an overview of significant advancements in 2015:
New treatment avenues
The year kicked off with the announcement of an MS Society-funded Canadian clinical trial studying the ability of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) to treat MS – the first of its kind in this country. The MEsenchymal Stem cell therapy for CAnadian MS patients (MESCAMS) study led by Drs. Mark S. Freedman and James J. Marriott, builds upon successful pioneering research identifying the safety of administering MSC in humans and the ability of MSC to suppress inflammation and repair nerve tissue; positioning them as promising candidates for the treatment of all forms of MS. Taking place at two Canadian sites – The Ottawa Hospital and Health Sciences Centre (HSC) Winnipeg – MESCAMS will provide more definitive answers regarding the use of MSC to treat persons living with MS. Screening and recruitment are currently underway.
In October, ocrelizumab was announced as a promising candidate for the first treatment for primary progressive MS. A phase III clinical trial, which involved a number of leading Canadian MS neurologists, showed that the treatment significantly reduced overall disability progression compared to a mock treatment (placebo) in people living with primary progressive MS. Ocrelizumab works by depleting the body of certain immune cells called B cells, and the positive results reported in the trial further demonstrate that B cells play a major role in the underlying disease processes of MS.
Results from an MS Society-funded collaborative study focused on B cells also revealed that a certain type of pro-inflammatory B cell was more common in people living with MS than in people without the disease, and that treatment with the B cell-depleting agent rituximab specifically targeted these unique B cells and reduced the inflammatory response.
Overall, an increased investment in progressive MS research was seen on an international scale. This was realized through the MS Society’s involvement alongside other MS societies worldwide in the International Progressive MS Alliance, which awarded 11 Planning Awards to top researchers across the globe, including Canada.
Wellness and lifestyle research
It is already known that living a healthy lifestyle is a major contributing factor to good quality of life and improved overall health with any chronic condition. The area of wellness covers large ground, including diet, exercise, and emotional wellbeing; the role of research is to help people living with MS, health professionals and key decision makers determine which wellness strategies work best to manage multiple sclerosis symptoms and how they can be incorporated into real world practice. Research is beginning to reveal some concrete answers in this area.
An MS Society-funded study from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto showed that teens with MS who engage in vigorous physical activity tend to experience fewer relapses than teens who perform less vigorous activity. The study provides good evidence that remaining active at a young age can influence disease course.
Vitamin D deficiency has long been on the radar as a possible risk factor for MS, and this past year provided some compelling evidence that supports this idea and the movement to counteract vitamin D deficiency in the general population. Researchers from McGill University used sophisticated genetic techniques to demonstrate quite convincingly that low vitamin D levels increase the risk of MS. The study’s technique also reduced the possibility of reverse causation, meaning that having MS does not in itself cause low levels of vitamin D, as well as the possibility of confounding factors such as obesity or health status.
The latest Canadian multi-site study of pediatric MS, funded by the MS Society, may also provide a window into the earliest triggers of MS. Studying pediatric MS allows researchers to measure the variables that might influence children’s risk at the time they have just been exposed to them, which makes it easier to understand the risk factors that may lead to the development of adult-onset MS.
Thanks to the generosity of Canadians, the MS Society and MSSRF have invested over $150 million to date in crucial MS research in the areas of the cause of MS, progressive MS, repair and remyelination, diagnosis, life-modifying therapies and cognition and mental health. Research advancements are only possible because of the donors who have invested in the work required to advance knowledge of MS. To learn more about MS research and to make a donation to the MS Society, the public may visit mssociety.ca.
About multiple sclerosis, the MS Society of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation
Canada has the highest rate of multiple sclerosis in the world. MS is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system comprising the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. It is one of the most common neurological diseases affecting young adults in Canada. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 40, and the unpredictable effects of MS last for the rest of their lives. The MS Society provides services to people with MS and their families and funds research to find the cause and cure for this disease. The Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation funds large, innovative, multi-centre collaborative studies that will lead to major advances in the field of MS. A unique Canadian resource, the Foundation’s main funding source is the MS Society of Canada. Please visit mssociety.ca or call 1-800-268-7582 to make a donation or for more information.