Feb 14, 2003
Researchers at Queen's University Belfast are to join forces with scientists from the United States in a bid to identify genetic factors involved in the development of multiple sclerosis (MS).
The 1 million pound research program, which has been funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National MS Society, will enable researchers to focus on the role of genetic variants in the disease.
The initiative is the first-ever collaboration between the National MS Society and the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Queen's researchers will be working with counterparts in the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
At Queen's the program is being led by Dr. Koen Vandenbroeck, from the School of Pharmacy, along with Dr. Colin Graham, from the Centre of Medical Genetics and Dr. Stanley Hawkins, a reader in clinical neurology, who is based at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
During an attack the fatty substance that covers the nerve, the myelin sheath, becomes inflamed and this disrupts the messages passed along the motor and sensory nerves.
There are a variety of symptoms including fatigue, weakness, unsteadiness, poor co-ordination and mood swings.
According to Vandenbroeck, MS occurs in individuals whose genetic makeup makes them susceptible to developing the disease.
While there are theories that the disease may be triggered by a virus in childhood, more recent thinking tends to point toward the importance of genetic factors.
Researchers around the globe are searching for MS susceptibility genes, using a variety of methods, including identifying gene variations which occur more frequently among those with the disease.
"One area of possible interest is on chromosome 12, which contains a gene that controls a powerful immune messenger called interferon-gamma (INF-gamma).
"Unlike interferon beta, an anti-inflammatory protein, which is currently used to treat MS, INF-gamma has been linked to immune attacks in MS. We have recently discovered a genetic variant of this gene that occurs more often in women than in men with MS. We have found this effect in two unrelated European populations - Northern Ireland and Sardinia.
"My colleague in the Mayo Clinic in the United States, Dr. Weinshenker, found similar 'gender' effects in the American population. This research program provides a unique opportunity to enable both of us to collaboratively unravel the basis and implications of this effect," Vandenbroeck said.
Dr. Stanley Hawkins, who is also collaborating on the research said, "The population lifetime risk for women of developing MS in Northern Ireland is greater than 1 in 200. Studies performed in 1997 showed that women aged between 35 and 55 have a prevalence rate of 500/100,000. Women have a two in one chance of suffering from the disease compared to men.
"Northern Ireland is an excellent place to study population genetics because the gene pool is quite small and less affected by people born outside Ireland than is the case in southern England.
"This is collaborative research which relies on the fact that we have a homogenous well-stratified population of MS patients," he said.
A total of 3000 MS patients from Northern Ireland, Sardinia, the United States and Belgium will take part in the project.
Vandenbroeck believes that the new research program will help researchers understand the phenomenon of gender bias in MS.
"It may also add pieces to the puzzle of immune cases of MS, and the
relevance of interferons in both causation of the disease and treatment,"
he added. This article was prepared by Genomics and Genetics Weekly editors
from staff and other reports.
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