Sir Geoffrey Owen, former editor of the Financial Times, was part of a family living with MS at a time when no effective treatments were available. Since then, great strides have been made in MS research.
Sir Geoffrey has been interviewing top MS scientists to find out where things stand today. In this blog, he tells us why we're at a pivotal moment for MS research.
Most major medical advances take place when we have two things happening at the same time:
- a serious, widely recognised, unmet medical need
- a scientific breakthrough which shows how that need might be met.
The initial breakthrough is often followed by a wave of further innovation, as scientists look for ways of building on the discovery. We saw this with development of penicillin which sparked a revolution in antibiotics. Now it could be MS’s turn.
The unmet need
The fact that the symptoms of MS get worse over time is one of the most distressing features of the condition. Current MS treatments prevent immune attacks but can't stop or reverse progression.
So the top priority for people with MS and the MS Society is developing treatments that slow or stop the worsening of disability.
Progression has been the topic of intense research over the past decade. That research is now bearing fruit.
Showing how that need might be met
Scientists now believe that MS progression is caused by three things:
- immune attacks on the myelin that protects our nerves
- failure of the body to repair damaged myelin
- nerve damage that gets worse regardless of immune activity.
MS researchers need to find a way of repairing damage to myelin. If myelin can be repaired, the nerve fibres will be protected, preventing progression. We also need to find ways to keep nerves healthy, so that nerve damage doesn’t get progressively worse.
Leading MS researchers believe that treating these aspects of MS together is likely to lead to significant progress in slowing down and stopping MS.
Following several discoveries in lab-based research, scientists have identified the role played by a special type of stem cell in myelin repair. In MS, these stem cells find it hard to repair all the damaged myelin.
Research is focusing on finding a way of stimulating these stem cells. Several drugs that have the potential to promote myelin repair are being tested in early-stage clinical trials.
What do we need to do?
Currently, there are too many gaps in our knowledge about myelin loss and nerve damage to attract pharmaceutical companies to invest money. So the next phase of research depends to a very large extent on funding from charities like the MS Society. This is particularly important now, when recent scientific advances have opened up new areas for research.
MS research has reached the foothills in a mountainous journey. A big push now will take research higher up the mountain, bringing us nearer the ultimate goal: to stop MS.