All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for October 2003

National MS Society And NIH Convene Major International Conference To Speed MS Genetics Research

October 1, 2003
Research Programs Department
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Many of the world’s top genetics experts were brought together early September in Washington, DC, to review current efforts to discover the genes that make people susceptible to multiple sclerosis, and to evaluate how progress can be expedited in this exciting field. The meeting on “Genetics and Multiple Sclerosis: Future Prospects” was organized and sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) of the National Institutes of Health, and was chaired by John Todd, PhD (University of Cambridge, UK). As a result of the meeting, new strategies are now under consideration that might speed the search for MS genes.


Research suggests that MS occurs in individuals and in families whose genes make them susceptible to developing the disease, but the actual factor or factors that trigger the disease in susceptible individuals is still not known. Evidence suggests that MS is a “multigenic” disease, meaning that many separately inherited genes contribute to MS susceptibility. Although this has made searching for the genes more complex, investigators are taking many approaches and are making exciting headway.

The National MS Society has been funding research to find MS genes for a decade, and a great deal of progress has been made over that time. (For a review of recent progress and current approaches being taken in this field, go to the Society’s website at the following link:

Despite this progress, specific answers about genetic susceptibility and the relation of genes to the clinical course of MS are still needed. There is increasing awareness that these questions might be answered with large-scale, international projects. With this in mind, the National MS Society and NINDS gathered leading geneticists, clinicians and basic scientists to discuss current research and explore possibilities for future collaborations. Geneticists whose research is focused on other autoimmune diseases were also present to share their experience and ideas.

The Meeting: MS genetics groups from around the world discussed their current approaches, information on the technologies they are employing, and how they are fostering collaborations amongst themselves. The National MS Society has been providing research support to most of these efforts. These groups included:

Several new types of large genetic studies were proposed as possible new directions to better identify MS genes, and were discussed in detail. One approach, called “admixture mapping,” involves studying populations with mixed racial composition, where there is evidence that the genes that might relate to MS come from a particular, in this case Caucasian, gene pool. (MS occurs more frequently in persons of Northern European ancestry.)

Another promising approach, called “haplotype mapping,” involves identifying blocks of genes, called haplotypes, which are inherited together within individuals. Each haplotype block may contain dozens of genetic mutations, but researchers only need to detect a few to “tag” that unique chunk of the genome and know all mutations associated with that one piece. Groups focusing on developing projects with this technology include the Collaborative MS Research Center that the Society awarded to colleagues at Harvard University (Boston), UCSF, and MIT’s Whitehead Institute (Cambridge, MA) (on our Web site at:

Others spoke of the potential value in identifying interactions between genes, even if there is no direct linkage detected between a gene and MS, because this may indirectly contribute to MS. Advanced technologies are available that can identify these interactions.


This important meeting opened up new lines of communication and spurred consideration of several possible strategies that would be of use to the various approaches to MS genes. The strategies include:

More work and more funding is needed to implement such strategies, and the organizers of this conference are continuing these efforts.

“We’ve made important strides in the complex quest for MS genes, and now, evolving technologies are opening up new possibilities for speeding this work,” commented Stephen Reingold, PhD, Vice President of Research Programs, National MS Society. “Meetings like this one enhance information exchange, spin off new collaborative efforts and bring new ideas to bear on our efforts to end this devastating disease.”

Copyright © 2003, The National Multiple Sclerosis Society