MS Research Highlights in 2014 Offer New Leads in Stopping MS, Restoring Function Lost, and Ending MS Forever

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In 2014, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society invested $50.6 million in 380 new and ongoing research projects and initiatives. Here is a brief summary of the research highlights reflecting the Society’s commitment to pursue promising opportunities wherever they exist, while focusing on three priority areas: progressive MS, nervous system repair, and wellness/lifestyle, which have been singled out under each research goal below when applicable.

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National Multiple Sclerosis Society invests nearly $51 million in new and ongoing MS research projects

Significant research progress occurred in 2014, offering new leads that are driving efforts to stop MS, restore function lost, and end MS forever. In 2014, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society invested $50.6 million in 380 new and ongoing research projects and initiatives. Here is a brief summary of the research highlights reflecting the Society’s commitment to pursue promising opportunities wherever they exist, while focusing on three priority areas: progressive MS, nervous system repair, and wellness/lifestyle, which have been singled out under each research goal below when applicable.

I. STOPPING MS

  • A team funded by the Society shed new light on immune cells known as macrophages, discovering a way to tell the difference between good and bad types of these immune cells during MS-like disease in mice. If it holds true for people with MS, this opens up possibilities for therapies that target bad cells and spare good cells.
  • The FDA approved Plegridy™ (peginterferon beta-1a, Biogen Idec) and Lemtrada™ (alemtuzumab, Genzyme, a Sanofi Company) for people with relapsing forms of MS. This now brings the number of disease modifying treatment options for those with the most common form of MS to 12.
  • African Americans with MS were found to have more visual impairment and faster thinning of the nerve fibers in the back of the eye than Caucasians with MS, in a multicenter study.
  • The MS Outcome Assessments Consortium established data standards and is leveraging clinical trials data from at least 16,000 patients to develop a new FDA-approved tool for measuring effectiveness of treatments in MS clinical trials.

---Progressive MS---

  • A phase II, placebo-controlled clinical trial of high-dose oral simvastatin (a medication used for high cholesterol) involving 140 people with secondary-progressive MS suggested that this pill was able to slow the rate of brain tissue loss over two years.
  • An international team funded by the Society found that levels of vitamin D in serum early in the course of MS may be predictive of later disease activity and progression.
  • The International Progressive MS Alliance awarded its first round of 22 research grants with the goal of removing barriers to developing treatments for progressive MS – the start of an ambitious program that will invest at least $30 million over six years.
  • The Society is funding clinical trials of nervous system-protecting approaches including a phase II trial of ibudilast in 250 people with progressive MS. Read More
  • Innate Immunotherapeutics leveraged National MS Society commercial seed funding to launch a clinical trial of a treatment for progressive MS.

---Lifestyle/Wellness---

  • Society-funded researchers at Dartmouth published findings in mice related to how gut bacteria may be able to modulate immune attacks in MS. If results are confirmed, it may lead to a strategy that “resets” the immune system to stop immune attacks in MS.
  • Previous studies suggest that smoking can increase the risk of getting MS and the risk of progression; researchers in the U.K. found that for every year that passed after a person with MS stopped smoking, the risk for progression was reduced by as much as five percent.

II. RESTORING WHAT’S BEEN LOST

---Nervous System Repair---

  • A small phase I clinical trial at Cleveland Clinic tested the ability of an individual’s own mesenchymal stem cells to inhibit immune mechanisms and augment intrinsic tissue repair processes when infused into the veins of people with relapsing forms of MS. Results suggested that this approach was safe and warrants a phase 2 trial, which is now in planning stages.
  • Results were published from two phase I safety trials of Biogen Idec’s BIIB033 (anti-LINGO monoclonal antibody, an exploratory treatment aimed at repairing myelin). No serious adverse events were reported. Phase II trials are underway.
  • A team supported by the Society at University of California at San Francisco identified compounds approved by the FDA for various disorders that might also stimulate myelin repair. A clinical trial stemming from this approach is underway.
  • Infusions of stem cells derived from placenta (a formulation known as “PDA-001” manufactured by Celgene Cellular Therapeutics) were shown to be safe in a small, phase I study of 16 people with relapsing-remitting or secondary-progressive MS. The next step, a proof-of-concept clinical trial, is planned.
  • The Society is supporting 15 research projects exploring various types of stem cells, including cells derived from bone marrow, fat and skin.
  • Canbex leveraged Society commercial seed funding to gain additional funding to launch a clinical trial of a novel Cannabis-like treatment for MS spasticity.

---Lifestyle/Wellness---

  • In a large sleep study that surveyed more than 2,300 people with MS, researchers found that 70% reported having at least one sleep disorder, but that 12% or fewer had received a diagnosis of, or treatment for, a sleep disorder. Treating sleep disorders experienced by people with MS could significantly improve quality of life.
  • In a study of 109 women with MS, researchers pinpointed an area of the brain with reduced tissue volume; this reduction was linked to high levels of depression.
  • Society-funded researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham used constraint-induced movement therapy (immobilizing a favored arm, forcing the weaker arm to do exercises and skilled movements) in 20 people with progressive MS, showing that weakness improved and brain tissue increased significantly. A larger trial is underway.
  • Brown University researchers found promise in a preliminary study of a salsa dance program for people with MS, seeing improvements in gait and balance even three months after the 4-week program ended. The Society is now funding a larger, longer study that may lead to the use of dance as physical therapy for MS.
  • The Society convened a Wellness Strategy Meeting with leaders in the fields of diet, exercise and psychology, including individuals who also directly live with MS, to identify gaps in knowledge and programming and to map out next steps for how these gaps might best be addressed.

III. ENDING MS FOREVER

  • Cutting-edge genomic research earned Philip De Jager, MD, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard, the 2014 Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research. He has played a role in nearly every key gene discovery and advancement over the past decade.
  • In studies involving over 80,000 people, the International MS Genetics Consortium has now identified more than 159 genetic variations related to MS; this Society-funded effort and additional genetics research were reported at ACTRIMS/ECTRIMS meeting.
  • Collaborators at Yale, MIT, Harvard and elsewhere reported a new approach to understand how subtle changes in genes may lead to the risk of developing MS and other immune diseases, promising new insights for interrupting the MS disease process.

---Lifestyle/Wellness---

  • Researchers in Sweden and California showed that adolescent obesity increased risk for MS, and this risk increased substantially in those with specific immune genes.
  • Harvard researchers looked at outcomes in women who had tried five popular diets, and found that none were associated with higher or lower risk of developing MS.
  • Investigators found that those who reported taking cod liver oil at ages 13-18 had nearly half the risk of developing MS compared to those who never took cod liver oil or took it at other ages.

About Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system, interrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are moving us closer to a world free of MS. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease. MS affects more than 2.3 million worldwide.

About the National MS Society
The Society mobilizes people and resources to drive research for a cure and to address the challenges of everyone affected by MS. In 2014, the Society invested $50.6 million to advance more than 380 research projects around the world in order to stop MS in its tracks, restore what has been lost and end MS forever. Through its comprehensive nation-wide network of programs and services, it also helped more than one million people affected by MS connect to the people, information and resources needed to live their best lives.

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Arney Rosenblat
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