Italian researchers have made a breakthrough in multiple sclerosis (MS) research that could improve treatment for the often devastating condition.
A team from the Higher Health Institute (ISS) led by Francesca Aloisi and AIDS-virus Barbara Serafini have proved that a common human virus called Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) causes the brain-damaging condition.
EBV, a virus of the herpes family, had long been a suspect in MS. The ISS team has now shown how it causes the typical brain injuries found in MS.
A study on 22 MS patients demonstrated for the first time that EBV is present in the lesions called plaques that attack a nerve-insulating substance called myelin.
“It sparks the inflammatory response that causes the brain damage,” she said.
She confirmed that MS was an autoimmune disease in which the body, through its immune system, launches a defensive attack against its own tissues.
The ‘non-aggression pact’ between the body and its immune system goes awry. The immune system wrongly identifies parts of the body as a foreign threat and declares war.
In the case of MS, EBV is carried across the blood-brain barrier by lymphocytes B - the cells of the immune system that make anti-bodies, Aloisi said.
“This is an extraordinary result,” said ISS President Enrico Garaci.
“For the first time, the observation of a virus in the brain of MS patients has enabled researchers to explain both the characteristics and the mechanisms of the disease”.
“This means that from today we will be better able to assess therapies that are currently available as well as possible prevention strategies,” Garaci said.
MS is a lifelong chronic disease diagnosed primarily in young adults, who retain a virtually normal life expectancy.
Estimates suggest that there are 2.5 million people living with MS and that women are twice as likely to be affected than men.
Persons living with MS describe changes in sensations, visual problems, muscle weakness, depression, loss of bladder control, dizziness, pain and difficulties with walking, clumsiness and halting speech.
Scientists have learnt a great deal about MS in recent years. But its cause has remained elusive - until now.
Multiple sclerosis can range from relatively benign to devastating, as communication between the brain and other parts of the body is disrupted. There are also different forms of the disease.
Twenty years ago, MS sufferers faced a hopeless future of long confinement to a wheelchair within 30 years of diagnosis.
However, in the last decade, treatment has changed dramatically. There is still no cure but disease-modifying drugs now slow the progression and control symptoms of the disease.
The new Italian study is published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.Submitted 11/10/2007 11:23:50 PM