More MS news articles for July 2001

Scientists Hunt Key To MS Treatment

July 10, 2001
The Hartford Courant

Being a woman has never been a good thing when it comes to multiple sclerosis.

Women tend to develop the degenerative disease younger than men and to suffer more of the attacks that can cause numbness, muscle weakness and, in the worst cases, immobility.

Now scientists are beginning to wonder if the conventional wisdom is wrong.

New research into the role of female hormones - once thought to be villains in the progression of MS - indicates that they may instead turn out to be beneficial.

While it is true that women tend to have more MS flare-ups, they also seem to recover more fully than men. Scientists think women's hormones may be the reason.

"The idea that [flare-ups] or inflammation may be a good thing in terms of recovering is worth exploring," said Dr. Peter N. Riskind, director of the multiple sclerosis clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. "Hormones may be important to resist injury, and assist in recovery and repair."

Riskind spoke last month at a ceremony in Rocky Hill honoring Connecticut scientists who are challenging conventional thought and probing the mechanisms of nerve cells to find new ways to treat multiple sclerosis.

An estimated 35,000 Connecticut residents - a large majority of them women - have the disease, in which the body's immune system attacks nerve fibers in the brain, stripping away the insulating sheath, called myelin. The absence of this protective coating makes it difficult for nerves to send messages from the brain to other parts of the body.

So far, research has focused on slowing down immune-system attacks on the central nervous system. But the possibility of preventing attacks and repairing damage is no longer a dream of the desperate, Riskind said.

Besides looking at hormones, researchers are studying the building blocks of brain cells to try to figure out how to rebuild myelin once it is stripped away. Others, including Joel Pachter at the University of Connecticut Health Center, are trying to learn how and why overzealous immune cells launch attacks on healthy brain cells.

The brain is protected by blood vessels that are designed to keep intruders out of the brain. The vessels are such good watchdogs that even medications aimed at zapping tumors have a tough time penetrating the so-called blood-brain barrier. But for some reason, in people with MS the gates open for wayward immune cells.

"These cells that come in recognize something in the brain as being foreign and they stay," Pachter said. "We're trying to find out what are the signals that bring them in."

Steven E. Pfeiffer, a professor of neuroscience and microbiology at UConn, is among a growing fraternity of scientists worldwide trying to figure out the mechanisms of myelin growth in order to "build a better myelin membrane." What they have found is that this nerve coating is more complex than anyone ever imagined.

On top of that, evidence that MS attacks also cut into the nerve fibers beneath the myelin could complicate Pfeiffer's work. Repairing the damage caused by MS may require fixing damaged nerves - a task that continues to confound researchers working with patients suffering from brain and spinal cord injuries.

Despite some stumbles and roadblocks, scientists are encouraged. In Connecticut, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has awarded $2 million in research grants, and work is progressing on a similar scale across the nation.

"This type of work lays the foundation for future treatment of the disease," said Susan Raimondo, community programs director for the Connecticut chapter of the MS society.

"What most people [with MS] are interested in is how can we reverse the damage they actually have," said Riskind. "This does not look as absolutely impossible as it did years ago."