Training the next generation of MS symptom management researchers

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Dr. Sophie Quick

Researchers at our new Doctoral Training Centres will investigate how to best manage MS symptoms without using drugs.

Treatments for MS are essential to helping people live well with the condition. Drug treatments are available for some people with MS. To help reduce MS relapses and slow down progression. 

Some treatments can also help with the symptoms of MS. But these can have side effects. And they don’t work for everyone. 

We’re proud to be launching two new Doctoral Training Centres, that will focus on finding effective ways to manage MS symptoms without drugs. 

Building capacity in MS research

Our Doctoral Training Centres, based at Glasgow Caledonian University and King’s College London, will provide high-quality research training for a group of 12 PhD students. Each student will benefit from support and guidance from experienced MS researchers. And focus on questions relating to MS symptom management – including physical activity, pain and sexual difficulties. 

Dr Clare Walton, our Head of Research, said:

“To achieve our vision of a world free from the effects of MS, we need to attract and develop the best talent to work in MS research. For many years, we’ve funded PhD students to take their first steps into a career in MS research. But we recognise the need to do more to develop and keep these researchers in the field. And we’ve developed our new Doctoral Training Centres with them in mind.

By providing funding and support for these PhD students, our Doctoral Training Centres aim to build capacity in MS symptom management research. The funding will let them explore new research ideas and build up their skills and networks. All this will maximise the chances of their research making a difference to people living with MS.”

Improving MS symptoms through exercise

Physical activity and exercise can be hugely beneficial for people with MS. But most research so far has focused on people with lower levels of disability. There’s been less research focusing on physical activity and exercise for people with MS who have more advanced disability. 

The Glasgow Caledonian University Doctoral Training Centre will recruit nine PhD students to address this gap in the research. As well as more traditional forms of exercise, they’ll look at newer approaches like dance and virtual reality. And investigate whether these improve fatigue, mobility and cognition.

Professor Lorna Paul, lead researcher at the Glasgow Caledonian University Doctoral Training Centre, said:

"We're really excited to be hosting one of the MS Society’s Doctoral Training Centres, with support from our partner universities, the NHS and third sector organisations. We hope to answer the “What, When and How?” questions in relation to physical activity for people with MS with more advanced disability. 

Although some of the studies will be laboratory-based, we'll particularly focus on implementing physical activity and exercise programmes in the ‘real world’. The 9 PhD students will work closely together. And we hope a number of the students will go on to be the MS symptom management research leaders of the future."

In addition to funding from the MS Society, the Glasgow Doctoral Training Centre is also being supported by Ayrshire and Arran Health Board Endowment fund, Scottish Ballet and PAL Technologies Ltd.

Digital health interventions for overlooked MS symptoms

The Doctoral Training Centre at King’s College London will recruit three PhD students to develop and test digital health interventions. These interventions will aim to treat symptoms including pain, sexual difficulties and psychological distress (for example low mood or anxiety). We know people with MS find it more difficult to access non-drug treatments for symptoms like these. 

These digital health interventions will sit in a single digital platform called “My MS Digital Symptom Toolkit”. This will allow people with MS to get support for different symptoms in the same place. And make it easier for healthcare professionals to refer people to access these non-drug treatments. 

Professor Rona Moss-Morris and Dr Joanna Hudson will lead the Doctoral Training Centre at King’s College London.

Professor Rona Moss-Morris said: 

“We're incredibly excited to be working in partnership with Avegen, the MS Society and people with MS on this project. Creating evidence-based digital interventions [...] is core to our mission.”

Dr Joanna Hudson said: 

When planning this Doctoral Training Centre, people with MS told us that they find it hard to access treatments for these symptoms. We hope having a digital symptom toolkit can address this need.

In addition to MS Society funding, the King’s College London Doctoral Training Centre is being supported by Avegen, a company that provides digital health solutions. Students will also benefit from infrastructure provided by the NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre.

Putting people with MS at the heart of research

People with MS have worked with researchers to develop their plans so far. And both centres will continue to put people with MS at the heart of their work. Each centre will have a patient and public involvement (PPI) group made up of people living with MS. These groups will oversee and input into the work of the Centres. 

In addition, each PhD research project in London will have its own PPI group. These will be made up of people with MS who have lived experience of the symptom relevant to each project. And each PhD project in Glasgow will have an assigned ‘MS Champion’. This is a person with MS who’ll work alongside the student and the wider research team to provide regular input to the project.