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What does coronavirus mean for MS research?

Dr Emma Gray

Emma Gray, our Assistant Director of Research, explains how coronavirus is affecting our research programme and what we’re doing to combat this.

Our research programme has been significantly affected by coronavirus.

With researchers redeployed to the NHS and labs closing due to social distancing, the situation is affecting many of the vital projects we fund – projects that could change what it means to live with MS.

Adapting to the pandemic

When we surveyed our current grant holders at the end of March, more than 70% who responded reported significant disruption to their activities.

We’re doing everything we can to keep these projects going. Clinical trials staff have adapted so they can carry out follow up visits by phone. Lab workers are analysing results and writing up findings from home. And MS researchers across the world are keeping in touch and sharing ideas virtually.

We’re also supporting the MS Register to run a survey to help us better understand how coronavirus affects people with MS. Over 5,000 people have already responded.

You can find out more about the survey and take part on the MS Register website.

A funding gap

According to the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), charities fund half of publicly funded medical research in the UK, totalling £1.9 billion in 2019. Together, this research has helped us make progress towards finding treatments for a wide variety of conditions, including MS.

Here at the MS Society, we invest millions every year into new projects, funding major breakthroughs in the UK and bringing scientists across the world together to speed up progress. This research has got us to a critical point, and we can see a future where nobody needs to worry about their MS getting worse.

We’re working hard on innovative ways to raise money from home, and we’re focused on managing our finances to secure our future. But we’re facing significant loss to our fundraising income and that unfortunately means our research programme will be affected.

At the moment we’re focussing on supporting our current grant holders to complete the projects they’ve started. But this means many planned new research projects could be postponed. And we’re unable to immediately fund the promising new work that is desperately needed.

Together, the funding gap and disruption to research could ultimately slow down the development of new treatments for people with MS. Which is why we’re calling on the Government to get behind the MS community and recognise our need for their support at this critical time. And we’re also joining the AMRC in asking the Government to commit to a Life Sciences Charity Partnership Fund, which would see the provision of £310 million in financial support to bridge the charity sector’s projected gap in research funding.

Our plan to stop MS

We use our expanding knowledge of the immune system to help people with the relapsing form of MS. In relapsing MS, sudden attacks of symptoms are caused by the immune system mistaking myelin – the protective layer that surrounds our nerve fibres – for a foreign body. But while there are over a dozen treatments available on the NHS for people with relapsing MS, there are still tens of thousands of people living with progressive MS who don’t have many options at all.

To help those living with progressive MS, we urgently need to find treatments that repair myelin and protect the nerves from damage. And we believe we’re on the cusp of major breakthroughs.

But every month essential research is put on hold is another month new treatments could be delayed.

Investing in the future

We’re committed to doing everything we can to be there for people with MS at this difficult time. But we must also continue to invest in the future, through research, because we know that finding treatments to slow the accumulation of disability is what people with MS want and urgently need.

As ever we're committed to supporting the very best MS research. So we’re still planning our efficient clinical trials platform, which will speed up the search for new treatments. And although we won’t be launching any open research funding calls at the moment, we’re reviewing this regularly.

Our ambition has not changed - that by 2025 we’ll be in the final stages of testing a range of treatments for everyone with MS. And we’re doing everything in our power to make this happen.

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