Feb 19, 2003
Health Media Ltd
Previous theories have suggested that MS - an inflammatory disease that attacks the central nervous system - may be triggered by a virus in childhood. But research is now pointing towards the importance of genetic factors.
The US-based National Institutes of Health and the National MS Society are therefore offering a 1-million grant for researchers who hope to unravel the role of the genetic variants in the disease.
So far, scientists know that MS affects twice as many women as men. By focusing on specific populations, the UK and US team hope to understand the reasons for this gender bias.
Dr Koen Vandenbroeck, who is leading the programme at Queen's, says, "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 that is used to treat MS, INF-gamma has been linked to immune attacks in MS, Dr Vandenbroeck explains.
"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," he says.
Researchers have also found similar "gender" effects in the US population. "This research programme provides a unique opportunity to enable both of us to collaboratively unravel the basis and implications of this effect," says Dr Vandenbroeck.
Dr Stanley Hawkins, who is also collaborating on the research, says, "The population lifetime risk for women of developing MS in Northern Ireland is greater than 1 in 200.
"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."
A total of 3,000 MS patients from Northern Ireland, Sardinia, the US
and Belgium will be taking part in the study.
© Health Media Ltd 2003