Being diagnosed with MS inspired my MS research project

Dr Joanne Welton was diagnosed with MS six years ago, while studying for her PhD. She's now leading an MS Society-funded study at Cardiff University, searching for MS-specific biomarkers, which could lead to a quicker and easier way to diagnose MS.

What was your MS diagnosis like?

The first symptoms I experienced were problems controlling the movement of my eyes, causing double vision. I was unable to stand up without falling over.

For the next 18 months I had further episodes but no diagnosis, which was very frustrating. I just wanted to know what was happening and was worried that people didn’t believe me. I was left to get on with it without much support, then as soon as I was diagnosed it was like a switch had been flicked; I was able to choose what treatment I wanted and access help from the brilliant MS nurses at University Hospital of Wales.

My diagnosis was a huge relief, my symptoms were real and I could now do something to help keep myself well.

What are you researching?

As a PhD student and now as a post-doctoral research associate, I’ve been working on little structures called exosomes, which are basically complex tiny bubbles of fat that are secreted from most, if not all, cells in your body. They can possibly act as a concentrated source of multiple biomarkers for diagnosing and monitoring diseases and I want to find out if they could be indicators of MS.

To do this I will be comparing the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), and most importantly the exosome portion of the CSF, of people who have MS and people who don’t have MS.

How could this help people with MS?

If my research is successful this could eventually lead to the development of a quicker and simpler test for MS, such as a blood test, which could make the diagnosis process less stressful and enable people with MS to get treatment earlier on.

This area of research has so much potential: you could possibly identify what kind of MS a person has, detect if someone is in relapse, follow disease progression, and provide personalised treatment. That’s quite far into the future though. My study is a small feasibility study; to date there are very few published studies looking at exosomes and MS. But exosome research is an exciting and growing field to be working in, and I’d like to think I could make a breakthrough that will help people.

How has your MS diagnosis affected your career?

If I hadn’t been diagnosed with MS I wouldn’t have thought about MS as an area of research. I’d like to use the knowledge I have developed as a scientist to help other people with MS, so I was extremely excited when I heard that my grant application had been successful!

My managers are very understanding of my MS and willing to help me progress in my career. As long the work gets done they don’t mind how I do it, so if I need to rest, I rest. I get told off by my boss for pushing myself too much sometimes! I’ve also had support from the Access to Work Scheme and Cardiff University, which have helped me get equipment to make it easier for me to move around the lab. That helps me conserve energy to enjoy my weekends too.

What’s next?

My project should be completed by the end of this year and I hope to present my work at a conference in Cardiff and publish it in a scientific journal. Hopefully this study will give me the preliminary data to look at a much larger cohort of people and in more detail.

I’d love to continue to study MS and want to let people know that even if you have MS you can still work and use your skills, like research in my case!

Dr Welton is a Research Associate at the Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, Cardiff University. She sourced the cerebrospinal fluid she needed for her study from The Welsh Neuroscience Research Tissue Bank.