The year 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the approval of the first disease-modifying therapy for relapsing-remitting MS in Canada. Advancements in the last two decades have led to faster diagnoses, better symptom management, and real hope that ending MS within our lifetime is achievable.
On top of celebrating past successes, 2015 saw real advancement in the areas of progressive MS, wellness, and discovering more about the possible triggers of MS. Here is a rundown of the research I found most exciting in 2015.
#1 Progressive MS
There are currently no approved disease-modifying therapies for people living with progressive MS—but 2015 saw real evidence that this may soon change.
In October, ocrelizumab was announced as a promising candidate for the first treatment for primary progressive MS. A phase III clinical trial showed that the drug significantly reduced overall disability progression compared to a mock treatment (placebo) in people living with primary progressive MS.
Ocrelizumab works by depleting the body of certain immune cells called B cells, and the positive results reported in the trial further demonstrate that B cells play a major role in the underlying disease processes of MS. In 2015, we began to see results from one of our funded collaborative studies focused on B cells, which revealed that a certain type of pro-inflammatory B cell was more common in people living with MS than in people without the disease, and that treatment with the B cell-depleting agent rituximab specifically targeted these unique B cells and reduced the inflammatory response.
Overall, 2015 saw an increased investment in progressive MS research, on an international scale. This was realized through our involvement in the International Progressive MS Alliance, which awarded 11 Planning Awards to top researchers across the globe, including Canada. The urgency for treatment options for people with progressive forms of MS cannot be overstated, and the research community’s concerted response to this urgency is starting to see some exciting results.
#2 Wellness research
We already know that living a healthy lifestyle is a major contributing factor to good quality of life and improved overall health with any chronic condition. The area of wellness covers large ground, including diet, exercise, and emotional wellbeing; the role of research is to help people living with MS, health professionals and key decision makers determine which wellness strategies work best to manage multiple sclerosis symptoms and how they can be incorporated into real world practice. Research is beginning to reveal some concrete answers in this area.
This year a study from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto showed that teens with MS who engage in vigorous physical activity tend to experience fewer relapses than teens who perform less vigorous activity. The study provides good evidence that remaining active at a young age can influence disease course, and I’m optimistic that future research will allow clinicians to recommend various levels of physical activity to their patients that are tailored to their abilities and limitations.
In 2015 we asked people living with MS what kinds of investments they would like to see most in wellness research through the MS Wellness Survey. The results will help to shape the studies we fund in this area, and I’m excited to make several announcements about wellness research grants in 2016.
#3 MS triggers
Vitamin D deficiency has long been on our radar as a possible risk factor for MS, and this year provided some compelling evidence that supports this idea and the movement to counteract vitamin D deficiency in the general population. Researchers from McGill University used sophisticated genetic techniques to demonstrate quite convincingly that low vitamin D levels increase the risk of MS. The study’s technique also reduced the possibility of reverse causation, meaning that having MS does not in itself cause low levels of vitamin D, as well as the possibility of confounding factors such as obesity or health status.
The latest Canadian multi-site study of pediatric MS may also provide a window into the earliest triggers of MS. Studying pediatric MS allows researchers to measure the variables that might influence children’s risk at the time they have just been exposed to them, which makes it easier to understand the risk factors that may lead to the development of adult-onset MS.
#4 New treatment avenues
The year kicked off with the announcement of an MS Society-funded Canadian clinical trial studying ability of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) to treat MS – the first of its kind in this country. The MEsenchymal Stem cell therapy for CAnadian MS patients (MESCAMS) study led by Drs. Mark S. Freedman and James J. Marriott builds upon successful pioneering research identifying the safety of administering MSCs in humans and their ability to suppress inflammation and repair nerve tissue—positioning them as promising candidates for the treatment of all forms of MS. Taking place at two Canadian sites, The Ottawa Hospital and Health Sciences Centre (HSC) Winnipeg, MESCAMS will provide more definitive answers regarding the use of MSCs to treat people living with MS. Screening and recruitment are currently underway.
If you have donated, fundraised, or raised awareness of MS on social media – thank you. Research advancements are only possible because people like you have invested in the work required to advance our knowledge of MS.
To become part of the Canadian movement to end MS, please register and fundraise for an MS Walk in 2016. Next year, when you read our 2016 year in review, you’ll know you helped move things forward!