Tuesday, October 22, 2002 10:13 p.m. EST
By Tom Corwin
Mark Hines thought it was the strain of working two jobs.
"I thought I was just tired," Mr. Hines said, when he began dragging his left leg two years ago. There were clues it might be more serious, however, such as the time 30 years ago when he went blind and then suddenly regained his sight.
A neurologist confirmed that Mr. Hines had multiple sclerosis, and since June 2001 the disease has progressed rapidly. Five relapses have left him in a wheelchair with little use of his legs, arms and hands.
That kind of traumatic course of the disease might be more typical of blacks and is the focus of Medical College of Georgia researchers Mary D. Hughes and Shirley E. Poduslo.
They will be gathering DNA samples from MS patients and their families
to find out whether the gene APOE4 may be part of the reason the disease
seems to take a different course in blacks.
Multiple sclerosis attacks the myelin coating that surrounds nerves and can cause a wide range of symptoms, from loss of muscle control and spasms to vision problems. Patients can go years without an attack before suddenly developing problems.
Dr. Poduslo has been gathering similar samples from Alzheimer's patients, 40 percent of whom have the APOE4 gene. But she cautions against comparing the diseases too closely.
"One of the questions I ask the MS patients is what other disorders do they have in their families. And very, very few of them have mentioned Alzheimer's," said Dr. Poduslo, the director of the DNA bank for neurodegenerative diseases at MCG. "There may be common risk factors which point to neurodegenerative disorders. (But) I don't think the genes that cause Alzheimer's will be the same genes that cause MS."
Other factors, such as lack of access to health care, and specialists in particular, could also contribute to worse outcomes for blacks, said Dr. Hughes, a neurologist who helps run the MS clinic in conjunction with Walton Rehabilitation Hospital.
"If you're not identified early and treated aggressively, is that what we're seeing? Or are there some other genetic components to this that may be contributing?" said Dr. Hughes, who will also be studying the issue.
For years, doctors believed black Americans very rarely got multiple sclerosis, and that may have prevented many from getting an accurate diagnosis. Symptoms vary widely among MS patients and can look like many other problems, such as a pinched nerve, Dr. Hughes said.
"It can mimic a lot of other things," she said.
Mr. Hines has started to regain some range of motion in his hands and arms since he started seeing Dr. Hughes in February, said his wife, Barbara.
Participating in the study is one more way of trying to understand the confounding disease, she said.
"If something affects a family member, you want to know as much about it as you can," she said.
Mr. Hines said he is participating "for those that come along behind me."
If you are interested in the DNA study or would like more information,
call Dr. Mary Hughes at (706) 721-1886.
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