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Cell growth key to MS battle - researcher

40 people attend ms society seminar here

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June 28, 2004
Derek Gordanier
The Brockville Recorder & Times

Stimulating cells to grow, or even transplanting them, will be key to battling multiple sclerosis in the future, a leading researcher into the disease said here Saturday.

Neuropathologist Dr. Samuel Ludwin, a researcher at Kingston's Queen's University, told the Leeds-Grenville chapter of the MS Society of Canada that treatment has long centred on ways to replenish myelin - the natural insulation covering neuron strands called 'axons' that transmit brain signals throughout the body - without necessarily repairing axons themselves. Multiple sclerosis develops when myelin decays in the brain and spinal cord.

But recent research has keyed on anti-inflammatory and cell growth drug therapy that can ease pressure on damaged axons while future treatments may include actually transplanting remyelinated cells in MS victims, Ludwin said.

"Myelin can regenerate and axons can't and that's one of the critical things," Ludwin said during the hour-long MS educational seminar held at Brockville's Highway Pentecostal Church.

Cells called oligodendrocytes manufacturer myelin in the body and Ludwin said "given half a chance the body will do a pretty good job" replenishing damaged myelin.

But when axons die to be replaced by scar tissue, he warned, "it's much more dangerous, much more of a problem" because the neuron cells command the oligodendrocytes to produce myelin.

"Axons tells oligodendrocytes through signalling 'Make myelin around me' and once an axon goes, there's no reason for the myelin-forming cell to exist."

MS may be considered an auto-immune disease because natural antibodies - the cells and chemicals such as B Lymphocytes and plasma cells that attack viruses mistakenly attack the protein structures of the body, in this case myelin.

"The theory is if we get an infection our immune system mounts a defence.

But protein structures are not much different and there's a cross-immunity that attacks our own system.

It may be what's happening with MS - in trying to fight infection it develops a slightly skewed immune system that can't distinguish the systems. You have T-cells attacking the myelin sheath, resulting in demyelination."

Research indicates higher incidents of MS in wealthy, western countries that immunize their populations against most diseases. Immunizations are supposed to force the body to acquire immunity to the infectious disease introduced, but sometimes an auto-immune response develops and the body fails to differentiate between its own cells and invaders.

In countries without widespread immunization programs, people either die from infectious diseases or develop a strong natural immunity to them.

"One of the theories is that we continue to sterilize everything in these developed countries and we're fooling our own immune systems," Ludwin said.

"There's a much greater population (here) with an immune system that's out of whack."

Ludwin also finds interesting research that proves lower rates of MS in sunnier climes, indicating the natural Vitamin D in sunshine may buffer against the disease.

He cited a study from Australia that showed rates of MS steadily decreasing on the way from rainy Tasmania in the south, to the hot and sunny north of the continent, nearer to the equator.

Genetics may also be at work. Ludwin said siblings of an MS victim run a 20 per cent risk of acquiring the disease themselves.

An identical twin will develop MS 50 per cent of the time when the sibling has it.

The Stanford University-trained Ludwin is president of the International Society of Neuropathologists and past chair of the medical advisory Board of MS Canada. He is professor of pathology and an associate dean of health science research at Queen's.

Saturday's seminar attracted about 40 people.

Nancy Williamson of Brockville said she attended to learn more about current research that may one day help her mother, who suffers from transverse myelitis, which has symptoms similar to MS.

"My mother has something similar to MS and it has to do with what he's doing research on," Williamson said.

"I just wanted to be in the know because knowledge is power.

"To me, all the more research I can know about the more I can help."
 

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