January 7, 2003, Tuesday
Ingrid van der Mei
The Mercury, Hobart
MULTIPLE sclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord that leads to various degrees of disability. Both genes and environmental factors interact with each other to cause the condition.
Research is currently being conducted throughout the world to find out which genetic and environmental factors might influence the development of Multiple sclerosis (MS). The Menzies Centre for Population Health Research in Hobart is contributing to this body of knowledge through its MS research program. One environmental factor that the centre is exploring is exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus, a virus that can cause glandular fever. Current evidence suggests this virus might be one of the triggers for developing MS. Studies have shown that people with MS reported two-three times more often that they had had glandular fever at some stage in their life, compared to people without MS.
In addition, a study in the UK found that people with MS reported about eight times more often that they had the infection before 18 years of age. So it seems that people who are exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus during childhood or adolescence may have a higher risk of developing MS than people who are exposed to it later in life.
The centre's MS environmental study holds information on 136 people with MS. Data collected includes whether subjects had glandular fever or other infections, the age at which the infections occurred, whether subjects had particular immunisations, their smoking history, exposure to chemicals, dietary intake of particular foods, the number of children and breastfeeding history.
In addition, the study will examine whether high levels of sun exposure are associated with a reduced risk of MS. In 1981, it MS rate in Tasmania was more than six times higher than the rate in northern Queensland.
The centre's research shows that the increase in the rate of MS in six regions of Australia relates to decreased levels of ultraviolet radiation in those regions. Tasmanian research participants have been asked to estimate sun exposure throughout their lives and a skin texture marker was used to measure cumulative sun exposure. With this information the centre can assess the relationship between past sun exposure and the risk of MS.
In a second collaborative project with the Royal Hobart Hospital, 160 individuals with MS will have twice-yearly reviews for three years in an attempt to identify which environmental factors reduce progression of the disease and so the accumulation of disability. Individuals undergo a winter and summer review at which they are required to answer a questionnaire on their exposure to various environmental factors such as diet, infections, the oral contraceptive pill, sun exposure and physical activity. In addition, several disease indicators such as disability and fatigue are measured.
Alongside research into environmental factors, the centre, in collaboration with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, is working towards identifying the location of genes that influence a person's susceptibility to MS.
The MS research team is currently preparing for this summer's MS reviews. People interested in taking part in the study or who would like more information on the project can contact the MS Research Team on 6222 8059 or 6222 7975.
Ingrid van der Mei is MS research co-ordinator at the Menzies Centre
for Population Health Research, University of Tasmania, 17 Liverpool St,
Hobart. Phone 6226 7700. www.menzies.utas.edu.au
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