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Behind the headlines: can a vaccine stop MS?

Caitlin Astbury

You may have seen the suggestion that a vaccination for a common virus could stop MS. We look behind the headlines to see why researchers suggested this idea, and what needs to happen to test it.

Have scientists discovered what causes MS?

A recent paper suggests that MS could be caused by threadworms and Epstein-Barr virus – two common infections. But researchers didn’t present any new evidence and are just proposing it as an idea.

We know that MS is likely to be caused by a mix of genes, something in your environment and some lifestyle factors. And we know that infections are likely to play a part in this. But more research is needed.

“We already know that no single factor causes MS, so these ideas don’t change our advice to people worried about developing the condition” said Dr Sorrel Bickley, our head of Biomedical Research.

A suggested cause of MS

The researchers’ idea is that exposure to Epstein-Barr virus following a threadworm infection could trigger MS. And they suggest that if this were true then a vaccine for Epstein-Barr virus could prevent it.

Media reports can make it sound like we’ve found the answer to what causes MS. But it’s really important to distinguish between a hypothesis and evidence. So far these ideas have not been tested in an experiment or clinical trial.

“Understanding the cause of MS is one of our key goals”, said Dr Bickley. “This study puts forward an interesting idea, and we look forward to seeing how this could be proven or disproven with data.”

Finding evidence for what causes MS

A hypothesis is a scientific idea that is based on previous observations and can be tested.

In this study, researchers looked at existing scientific papers and used these to come up with their hypothesis about the cause of MS. These types of articles, called ‘reviews’, help scientists to identify new areas to explore. But, importantly, they don’t present any new findings.

Once scientists have come up with a hypothesis, they need to run experiments or clinical trials to test them. Data from these tests are the evidence we use to decide if the hypothesis is correct or not.