Anette Hansson, is one of the tens of thousands that fall prey to MS across Europe, she describes the onset of the disease:
“I had a lot of balance problems. My muscles were very weak. I had pain in my eyes. It was the optic nerve, I understood afterwards. So I went to the doctor. And after a while I got the diagnosis.”
Claudio Conforti is an MS sufferer in Italy:
“The neurologist told me: ´Listen. Stay calm, but magnetic resonance has confirmed that you have multiple sclerosis.´”
“My first reaction was to see a wheelchair in front of me. I think you usually react that way with multiple sclerosis; a wheelchair is what the disease is about, I thought then.”
Francesco Sinibaldi is another who has been hit by MS:
“I feel good. I work, I can walk, I have a wife, two kids. I have a fairly normal life. But in the back of my mind there is always this slight… this slight uncertainty.”
From the streets and gardens of Rome to the hospital rooms in Stockholm the reality of MS stalks Europe, but what is it?
Multiple Sclerosis affects the ability of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to communicate with each other.
Severe cases result in permanent disability.
Francesca Aloisi is the coordinator of the Neuropromise project researching the disease:
“There are two parallel processes in this disease. First there is an inflammatory process, which is chronic and stays in the patients for life. At the same time, there is a second process, a neurodegenerative process, when patients lose different components of their central nervous systems. This neurodegeneration is very likely linked to the inflammatory process.”
Researchers at the Italian Institute of Health
coordinate a European Union Research project aimed at developing new therapeutic Strategies to treat patients.
Biologists first had to get a better understanding of the complex mechanisms behind the development of the disease.
Molecular analyses of damaged tissues confirmed that inflammation of the nervous system somehow sparks the neurodegenerative process.
Roberta Magliozzi is a biologist at the Italian Institute of Health:
“We can for instance analyse lesions inside plaques of the central nervous system of patients. We can not only confirm the existence of those lesions, but also their extension. And we can somehow establish how those lesions are connected to the presence of cells from the inflammatory system.”
Researchers now have a clearer idea of how the disease evolves.
But they are still unsure how it emerges, and why it affects some people while sparing others.
“We still don´t know what causes this disease. What we do know is that genes and environment interact in a complex way in the development of MS.”
At the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden, genetic studies have been performed to further understand the causes of the disease.
Laboratory experiments were combined with clinical studies of volunteers like Anette.
Now in her 50s, this former stewardess was diagnosed with MS 2005.
“I´m doing now the same things that I used to do. But differently. I´m not running any more; I´m walking with my sticks. I´m not dancing ballet as I used to do; I´m doing yoga.”
The research helped to identify some genes thought to be linked to the disease´s origin.
Tomas Olsson is Professor of Neurology at the Karolinksa Institute:
“We have found at least 5 new risky genes for Multiple Sclerosis. One at a time, each gene affects the risk of developing the disease a little. But as a whole, they point to a disease pathway. And this information can provide new ideas for finding new targets for therapy.”
Tomas Olsson then combined that genetic data with different lifestyle and environmental patterns.
And he came to certain conclusions.
“There have been three main suspects regarding lifestyle and environmental factors that can help the disease to develop. First is lack of sun exposure and the resulting carencia of Vitamin D. Second is the infection by a virus, called Epstein-Barr virus. And the third is smoking.
The link between smoking and multiple sclerosis is a recent finding. Here in Sweden we have compiled and published the largest research material in Europe on this topic. Our studies show that smoking increases the risk of Multiple Sclerosis by around 60 %. But together with two different risk genes for MS, smoking can increase the risk by 2500 %.”
Breakthroughs in biology, genetics and environment have helped researchers to focus on new treatments against neurodegeneration.
But not necessarily new drugs.
As Lars Fagger Professor of Neuroimmunology at the University of Oxford explains:
“Clearly there is a big need to develop new drugs to help the patients. The problem is however that it costs approximately one billion euros and 10 to 15 years of hard work to develop these new drugs. So one might wonder if it is possible to take a shortcut. And that´s what we have tried to do. We have been trying to see if a drug that was used many many years ago in Europe to treat hypertension
that´s increased blood pressure could also be used to stop neurodegeneration. What we have shown in our model systems is that yes, to a certain extent, this drug stops neurodegeneration.”
A joint European research effort with a final aim: to corner a still elusive disease.
Claudio Conforti MS sufferer:
“Our expectation is that Science will provide soon some specific results. If not for us, long-term Multiple Sclerosis patients, at least for younger sufferers.”
“As far as MS research was concerned, 25 years ago you had to tell the patient: come back when you are worst. Then 15 years ago we got some treatments that reduced the number of relapses by some 30 percent. And now there are certain treatments that may decrease the relapses by some 60 or 70 percent.”
Francesco Sinibaldi MS sufferer:
“I don´t expect that researchers will be able to find from one day to the other a miracle cure for all patients. It is a complex disease. But for sure they will…little by little find solutions for some of us.”
“So the challenge for us researchers now is to understand the causes and the pathogenesis of the disease much better, so that in fifteen years we have much more precise therapies.”
Anette Hansson MS sufferer:
“I feel very good. And I have met a lot of people with Multiple Sclerosis who also feel good. So this disease does not mean that you will be sticked to a wheelchair. And even if you end in a wheelchair, that is not the end of the life. I really feel I have a very good life now.”