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Photo: a researcher looking at brain samples at the MS Society Tissue Bank

A moment that changed MS research - 20 years ago

David Schley

On 16 January 1998, Professor Richard Reynolds set off to personally collect the first human brain for the MS Society Tissue Bank at Imperial College. Since then, the centre has grown to become a vital resource for researchers all over the world.

The MS Society Tissue Bank is born

Professor Reynolds explains: “MS is a condition that only affects the human brain and spinal cord. I realised we could only answer many of the important questions we were asking by studying the actual tissue damaged by MS.”

He approached the MS Society with a proposal to set up a national tissue bank, where people with MS could donate their brain and spinal cord after their death to be used for research.

Excited by what this could mean for MS science, we’ve been supporting his work ever since.

Understanding tissue changes in MS

Professor Reynolds saw that advances being made in understanding MS in the blood and immune system were not being matched for the central nervous system.

MRI scans show damage to the brain, but don’t tell you anything about chemical or cellular changes happening due to MS.

A new look at MS

People who choose to donate their tissue after they die are changing the way we study MS. “It’s the ultimate gift that allows us to study just about any area of MS,” said Professor Reynolds.

So far, over 780 people have donated their brain and spinal cord, with more than 4,600 others registered. These include people with and without MS.

But more are needed, as the team at Imperial College is sending out tissue to researchers every day. “To advance our understanding of progression, we really need people with highly active progressive MS to register,” said Professor Reynolds.

You can find information about donor registration on the Imperial College London website.

Supporting MS research around the world

Tens of thousands of samples have been sent all over the world. They have contributed to hundreds of groundbreaking research papers, including a dozen in the last year alone.

Researchers use tissue samples to study MS genetics, develop diagnostic tests, find new molecules responsible for damaging our nerves and identify drug targets, as well as substituting animal experiments.

“Without tissue, a lot of this research simply cannot be done,” said Professor Reynolds. 

Proud partners

The MS Society Tissue Bank has come a long way since 1998. It now operates jointly with the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank, reducing running costs for both charities.

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director for Research at the MS Society, said: “The MS Society Tissue Bank makes an enormous contribution to MS research around the world, and we’re immensely proud to have funded it from its inception. Of course, none of it would have been possible without our amazing supporters, for which we’re so grateful.”