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Cell-ebrating progress in MS research

Dr Susan Kohlhaas

Our Director of Research, Dr Susan Kohlhaas, shares her thoughts on another year of MS research.

With a new year (and decade!) stretching out before us, I’ve been reflecting on our successes in 2019 and what's awaiting us in 2020. 

As always, our number one priority is to find treatments for MS progression. I know the pace of research can feel frustratingly slow, especially if you don’t yet have any treatment options. But we've made some real headway over the last twelve months.

Progress in basic science

We’ve made major progress in what we call ‘basic science’ (which is anything but basic!). This early-stage research, using cells and animals, is the first crucial step on the journey to new treatments.

For me, one of the most exciting discoveries was from our Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair. A project led by Dr Bjoern Neumann found that a drug called metformin promoted myelin repair in rats. We hope this will lead to a new clinical trial, so watch this space.

Our researchers also discovered that harmful cells called macrophages must die before myelin repair can take place. And how to trick cells involved in making myelin into behaving like younger, more efficient cells.

New treatments for progressive MS

We’ve had several fantastic wins this year. Siponimod was recommended for approval as a treatment for active secondary progressive MS. And ocrelizumab was made available on the NHS for people with early primary progressive MS in England and Wales.

Our ground-breaking trials have been making real progress. The MS STAT2 trial of simvastatin for secondary progressive MS recruited their 500th participant in September, with another 200 signing up since then.

Our trial of bexarotene  – an existing cancer drug – as a potential myelin repair treatment was also completed. We’re hoping to get the results next year.

Making a difference from day one

We know that progression starts very early in MS, even when you have a diagnosis of relapsing MS. So our researchers have also been looking for ways to minimise disability progression right from the start.

One study showed early treatment with intensive therapies resulted in slower disability progression. We’re co-funding a clinical trial called DELIVER MS to test this idea. The trial is recruiting 800 people with relapsing MS in the UK and US.

And researchers in Canada showed that people who took beta interferons, a common MS treatment, had a better chance of a longer life expectancy.

More certainty for the future

People with MS often tell me they struggle with not knowing what their future with MS will be like.

Two landmark studies found it's possible to predict how someone’s MS is likely to develop in the long-term, from MRI scans taken early after diagnosis. And they could even tell who was more likely to develop secondary progressive MS.

What’s next for MS research?

We recently announced we’d committed to raising £1.3 million to fund 13 new research projects, so we’re excited to get these started. They include exciting research on managing MS symptoms, like using wearable robots to help people with advanced MS to exercise.

And of course, we’re working hard to get our planned clinical trials platform up and running.

The next research breakthrough is in reach

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