What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Science points to another perspective on how MS begins

At almost every MS research conference I’ve attended, one of the most actively discussed topics is immunology. It is clear that that the immune system is acting in an uncharacteristic way in MS, as evidenced by many elegant experiments showing a build-up of immune cells in the brain and spinal cord causing severe tissue damage. These studies encourage the belief that MS begins with the immune system.

But there are a group of scientists that are now wondering whether, in MS, the immune system misbehaves causing tissue damage, or if the break down of nerve tissue is actually taking place before the immune cells arrive and cause more harm.

This important example of ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ has prompted new research that is moving away from the immune system and focusing efforts on trying to understand the mechanism of tissue breakdown in the nervous system, also known as ‘neurodegeneration’.

In 2011, the MS Society funded an extensive, multi centre research grant spearheaded by Dr. Peter Stys from the University of Calgary. Dr. Stys is interested in learning more about neurodegeneration and whether this is the first step in propagating MS. He presented data here at the endMS conference which challenges the conventional wisdom that MS is an autoimmune disease driven by white blood cells that enter the nervous system and break down tissue. Instead he proposes that perhaps the tissue is undergoing some process of degeneration first, followed by inflammation through mechanisms that may involve copper or other key molecules.

Research in this area is critical as it would not only provide clues about the cause of MS, but also insights on progressive MS which is characterized more so by tissue damage rather than inflammation.

This alternative view of the cause of MS was supported by data presented by MS Society funded researcher Dr. George Harauz from the University of Guelph. In his presentation Dr. Harauz provided very detailed descriptions of the structure and function of myelin – one of the most important substances in the brain and also a major target of harmful immune cells in MS. Dr. Harauz stated that it is possible that early alterations to myelin may, down the road, lead to development of MS. I had a chance to chat with Dr. Harauz, who has been studying myelin and MS at the University of Guelph for over 25 years.

I just learned that you studied engineering physics at the University of Toronto as well as completed a fellowship at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin, Germany. What was it like to shift from physics to biology when you joined the University of Guelph?

I’m essentially self-taught in biology, but my physics background has been very valuable to my knowledge and research in MS. I want ensure that I am always learning new ideas and techniques.

Can you tell us a little bit more about how changes to myelin can influence the development of MS?

Myelination, or the formation of healthy myelin, begins at a young age and continues throughout adolescence. Any events that may alter healthy myelin during this period of development, in combination with other triggers, can increase one’s susceptibility to MS.

Is there potential for therapies that can promote myelin maintenance and/or repair in people with MS?

Yes, there are many promising agents that are currently in the early discovery stages. These drugs are aimed at promoting the repair and maintenance of healthy myelin, which is important in treating MS.

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