A tissue bank researcher stands in a lab in front of a tray of tissue samples

How the MS Society Tissue Bank is helping scientists find new treatments for MS

The MS Society Tissue Bank allows people to donate their brain and spinal cord tissue for MS research after their death. Over the last 20 years, it's helped scientists to make some major discoveries about MS.

Since it was set up in 1998, our tissue bank has sent over 20,000 tissue samples out to researchers around the world. These samples have been used in over 400 research projects in 14 countries.

Here are just some of the ways scientists have used samples from our tissue bank to understand more about MS - and find new ways to treat it.

1. RXR-gamma and myelin repair

Tissue from our tissue bank was vital in discovering that a protein called RXR-gamma plays a role in myelin repair.

A team of researchers from Cambridge and Edinburgh first found this protein was important in myelin repair in rats. They then used tissue samples to confirm it's present in the human brain.

They also found there were higher levels of the protein in active MS lesions (areas of the brain showing inflammation) than in older lesions. This suggests our body’s ability to repair myelin gets worse as MS progresses.

Thanks to this work, we're now funding a clinical trial to test a drug called bexarotene that targets RXR-gamma.

2. Targeting B cells to develop more effective treatments for MS

B cells are a type of immune cell – they produce antibodies that defend us against infection. Using samples from our tissue bank, researchers found these B cells can build up in the brains of people with MS and cause damage to myelin. We're now beginning to see therapies being developed for people with progressive MS that target B cells, like ocrelizumab.

More recently, researchers from Yale University in the US used tissue samples to show that a specific type of damaging B cell is found in certain locations around the brains of people with MS. This knowledge could help us to develop more effective treatments by targeting this specific type of B cell, instead of all B cells.

3. Identifying ways to predict MS progression

Researchers from Italy used samples from our tissue bank to identify markers in the brain that could be used to predict how someone’s MS will progress.

They showed that immune cells get trapped in the protective layer around the brain and then produce molecules that create inflammation. This inflammation is linked to increased nerve damage as well as more rapid progression of MS. 

These markers could be used to help us identify how someone’s MS will progress. This would give people with MS greater certainty about their futures and help them to make informed treatment choices.

4. Getting a closer look at nerve cells

Using tissue from our tissue bank, researchers created a 3D representation of the spinal cord nerves from a person with MS for the first time.

CLARITY is a new technique that allows researchers to get a close up look at human tissue in 3D and has already been used to visualise damage in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. This study showed the technique can be used to study MS.

Now researchers will be able to use CLARITY to study areas of myelin damage in more detail, improving our understanding of how nerve damage occurs in MS.

5. Understanding what causes fatigue in MS

Our nerve cells pass messages to each other via connections called synapses. Researchers from Edinburgh compared these connections in tissue from people with and without MS. They found that people with MS lose a specific type of synapse which puts the electrical signals in the brain out of balance.

The researchers think this could be the cause of fatigue and other cognitive symptoms like brain fog.  Finding out more about the biological mechanisms behind these symptoms will help us to identify new targets for treatments.

So far, over 780 people have donated their brain and spinal cord. But the team at Imperial College is sending out tissue to researchers every day, so we need more people to register. You can find information about donor registration on the Imperial College London website.