Monthly Archives: December 2015

Happy Holidays from the MS Society research team!

As the end of 2015 draws near, I can’t help but feel a sense of hope and pride as I reflect upon what has been accomplished in multiple sclerosis research over the past year. From enabling the launch of the first human clinical trial for mesenchymal stem cells in Canada, to sustaining momentum in funding for grants under the Progressive MS Alliance, your support – whether it be from fundraising and donations, raising awareness, or simply providing words of encouragement – has been insurmountable.

Thanks to all of you, Canadian MS researchers, trainees, and health professionals are able to do the work they do and lead the fight to end MS. This year we witnessed significant advancements in treating and further understanding MS: we learned that vitamin D deficiency is more strongly linked to risk of MS than we previously thought; that a specific type of inflammatory B cell plays a major role in the development of MS; that low levels of exercise among younger people with MS is strongly associated with disease severity, depression and fatigue.

My team at the MS Society has also been quite busy. We recently launched Research in Action, a monthly e-bulletin highlighting research news, events, and people in the community who are actively involved in research. A record breaking 622 participants from across Canada participated in our annual MS Research Telephone Town Hall (formerly the MS Research Webinar), which was hosted by Bob McDonald from CBC’s Quirks & Quarks. This past August we sent out the MS Wellness Survey, which received an overwhelming response from the MS community. The survey allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of the practices and gaps in nutrition, physical activity, and emotional wellbeing among people affected by MS, and will greatly influence future research funding priorities.

People living with MS are becoming more engaged in research, and want to play a meaningful role in how research studies are designed, carried out, analyzed, and translated into real-world practice. At the MS Society we are looking at ways to involve people living with MS in research, in addition to our Community Representatives program.

These and so many other activities and milestones mark the beginning of a very exciting era in MS research. I look forward to seeing what the future has in store and commend all of you for being champions of research and supporting ongoing progress towards a cure for MS.

On behalf of the research team at the MS Society of Canada, I want to wish all of you Happy Holidays and a safe and Happy New Year!

Vitamin D and MS: What we’ve learned over the past year

It’s been over a year since my last major update on vitamin D in which I summarized highlights from the Vitamin D Consensus Workshop, and since that time, research exploring the link between vitamin D and MS has been brimming with activity and new progress. Vitamin D deficiency has long been suspected to be a risk factor for developing MS after the initial observations that our high latitude and low sunlight exposure in Canada correlates strongly with our high rate of MS. What set this past year apart was that it was marked by the steady emergence of new studies suggesting that vitamin D may have potential therapeutic benefits beyond influencing MS risk.

One of these studies was published just last week in the journal PLoS ONE, and rounded out a string of studies examining the neuroprotective and remyelinating potential of vitamin D. The study, led by University of Calgary researchers Drs. Luanne Metz and V. Wee Yong and funded in part by the MS Scientific Research Foundation, had two parts: part 1 involved studying the effects of biologically active vitamin D on the survival of nerve cells grown in cell culture when exposed to activated T cells, while in part 2 they wanted to determine if vitamin D could reduce nerve fibre loss in mice with an MS-like disease. In both cases, the researchers found that vitamin D could reduce the loss of nerve fibres and cells during an inflammatory attack, suggesting that vitamin D supplementation could have therapeutic benefits for people living with MS.

These results follow right on the heels of a similar study from a group at University of Cambridge, who showed that vitamin D interacts with another protein to stimulate myelin-producing cells to repair damaged myelin in rats with an MS-like disease. These findings went hand in hand with a study from earlier this year, which showed for the first time that vitamin D can boost repair of the brain by stimulating the activity of neural stem cells. I’m confident that these studies will pave the way for a more informed discussion and larger clinical trials examining the effectiveness and safety of vitamin D supplementation for treating the symptoms and disease course of MS.

Going back to vitamin D and MS risk, one study that made a big splash in the scientific community came out of McGill University by Dr. Brent Richards and colleagues. The group used a sophisticated genetic analysis technique to identify genes that affect vitamin D levels in the blood and determine if those genes are associated with MS risk. They found that low activity or expression of genes strongly linked to vitamin D status were associated with higher levels of MS. This could be perhaps the most convincing genetic evidence so far that low vitamin D levels increase the risk for MS.

Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world, and given that many of us aren’t getting enough vitamin D, there’s no better time than the present to be having the conversation about how much vitamin D is enough to promote good health for Canadians. To that end, the MS Society is working closely with the Vitamin D Society and other health charities to develop a Canadian Vitamin D Consensus, which is meant to educate Canadians on the importance of vitamin D levels for good health. We’re also exploring ways to establish evidence-informed guidelines around vitamin D that will help people affected by MS achieve improved health and quality of life. Finally, we recently launched a Vitamin D page on our research website to provide a one-stop resource on the current knowledge and research linking vitamin D and MS. With 2015 now wrapping up, I’m confident that 2016 will maintain the momentum of vitamin D research and bring us new answers to unresolved questions about the link between vitamin D and MS.

Microglia: Friend or foe?

People living with multiple sclerosis know all too well that for them, the immune system is a double-edged sword. Although it acts as a sophisticated alarm and defense system that protects the body from infection by pathogens like certain bacteria and viruses, it can also turn on its own tissues and attack them. This process, called autoimmunity, is the hallmark of MS. This Janus-like quality of the immune system doesn’t just end there; individual types of immune cells can be harmful or beneficial, depending on the circumstances. In this post, I’ll be looking at microglia and trying to answer the question: are they friend or foe?

Janus, the two-faced Roman god (Magnus Manske / Wikimedia Commons)

Janus, the two-faced Roman god (Magnus Manske / Wikimedia Commons)

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On GivingTuesday we rally for an important cause

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The ability for the MS Society to fund groundbreaking, meaningful research that propels treatment development and improves health would not be possible without people who generously donate to and support our work. Just a few weeks ago a member from the research team attended a dinner to celebrate the achievements of so many dedicated fundraisers. She mentioned that some of the individuals at the dinner raised anywhere from $10,000-$40,000 for MS research and programs. When asked how they did it, they said that every year, they go door to door, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, small business to small business, family member to family member, and so on, expressing their passion for the cause and the importance of raising funds to find a cure for MS.

These are the people who make our work possible, who enable each and every researcher we fund to uncover the cause and trajectory of MS, and to discover safe and effective treatments that give people their lives back. This year alone there were so many important milestones in MS research, all of which were because of the support of tens of thousands of fundraisers, donors, corporate sponsors, and volunteers.

While I love a good Thanksgiving meal and Black Friday deal, what I truly cherish most is seeing the kindness and generosity that people in the community display on GivingTuesday. GivingTuesday is a global day of giving back, getting involved and spreading awareness for a cause that is important to you. Each year on GivingTuesday, we are all encouraged to think of others and help those who are in need of support.

If you would like to support the MS Society, you can do so by visiting the MS Society website and making a donation. From now until the end of the year, your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to a total of $50,000. That means it will have twice the impact for people living with multiple sclerosis. There are also many other ways to get involved, such as volunteering, taking part in an event, advocating for better government and employment supports for people with MS, etc. Learn more about these and other opportunities here.

Thank you for supporting Canadians living with MS and their families through your donations, and for raising much-needed awareness about the disease and for helping Canada to continue to be a great nation for MS research.