Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, unpredictable neurological disease that affects the central nervous system – the brain, spinal cord and the optic nerves.
MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease which causes damage to the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibers, called myelin. Damage to myelin interferes with messages between the brain and other parts of the body.
Understanding what causes MS will be an important step toward finding more effective ways to treat it and—ultimately—cure it, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place.
At present, there are several drug treatments that slow the disease and reduce symptoms of MS – but there is still no cure.
Human and Social Costs
- An estimated 400,000 Americans suffer from multiple sclerosis—with 200 more people diagnosed every week.
- Worldwide, MS is thought to affect more than 2.5 million people.
Anyone may develop MS, but there are some patterns. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and MS is approximately twice as common in women as in men.
Recent studies sponsored by the National MS Society show that annual direct and indirect costs of the disease for each affected individual averages $44,000 – and the total cost can exceed $2.6 million over an individual’s lifetime. For all people with MS in the U.S., the annual cost exceeds $13 billion.
Other human costs associated with MS are the social, vocational and emotional complications associated with the primary and secondary symptoms. The diagnosis of a chronic illness can be damaging to self-esteem and self-image. A person who becomes unable to walk or drive may lose his or her livelihood. The strain of dealing with a chronic neurological illness may disrupt personal relationships. In addition, people with MS frequently experience mood swings and depression as primary, secondary or tertiary symptoms of the disease.
Potential for Cures
In recent years, researchers have been able to identify which immune cells are mounting the attack, some of the factors that cause them to attack, and some of the sites, or receptors, on the attacking cells that appear to be attracted to the myelin to begin the destructive process.
Ongoing efforts to learn more about the autoimmune process in MS—what sets it in motion, how it works, and how to slow or stop it—are bringing us closer to understanding the cause of MS. The prospect of doing human clinical trials with stem cells to treat diseases like multiple sclerosis may be growing closer.
Stem cell research permits scientists to better understand how human cells behave in the brain and help us predict which medications may be successful in the treatment of myelin loss.
An eventual treatment of a disease like MS might involve injecting stem cells to create myelin in the brains of patients. Another strategy might involve using certain medications to turn on these cells already present in the brains of patients and thereby create new myelin.
- Recent progress has been made by scientists to overcomes an important barrier to the use of stem cells from the brain in treating demyelinating diseases. A precise method has been developed that prospectively isolates just the stem cells that can treat multiple sclerosis and childhood diseases caused by the brain’s inability to make myelin. After analzying genes in different stem cell types, the scientists searched for and found the genes that were most likely to differentiate into stem cells that make myelin. The human stem cells were then successfully injected into the brains of mice with MS. Scientists say the new method brings the prospect of clinical trials that much closer. [University Buffalo Oct.13th,2011]
- U.S. researchers have pushed embryonic stem cells to produce special cells that might one day repair nerves damaged by multiple sclerosis. The disease damages the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibers, leaving behind scar tissue called sclerosis. MS can also harm the nerve fibers themselves. The damage disrupts the nerve impulses between the brain and body and results in symptoms that vary from person to person and from time to time in the same patient. Fast Forward, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, helped fund the study. (HealthDay News, April 9, 2009)