One of the many health-related organizations that Ryan Kavanaugh supports is the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society, which provides important assistance to patients with MS and their families, while also spearheading groundingbreaking research. Efforts to address MS focus on several different areas that include curing the disease altogether and repairing the damaged that it has caused to the nervous system in order to allow individuals to resume a normal life. Another major focus of the research supported by the National MS Society is stopping the progression of the disease in all of its different forms.
The most common MS disease course is known as relapsing-remitting MS. This form of the disease has defined attacks of new and/or increasing neurological symptoms followed by a period of either partial or complete remission. All symptoms may disappear during this period, and some may become permanent. However, the disease does not progress during periods of remission. Less is known about progressive forms of MS. Primary progressive MS occurs when neurologic function continues to worsen from the onset of symptoms. Patients with this type of disease experience no remission. The disease may also move from an initial relapsing-remitting course to a progressive one known as secondary progressive MS.
The Challenges of Treating Progressive MS
Researchers have not yet identified why some forms of MS are remitting, while others are progressive. Moreover, the progressive characteristics of some forms of the disease have made finding potential treatment significantly more difficult. While virtually all therapies approved to treat relapsing MS have been or are currently being tested in people with progressive disease, the ability to define its impact becomes much more difficult when a disease is progressive. The clinical trials involving people with relapsing disease tend to use their relapses to measure the progression of the disease. During a relapse, MRI scans can detect changes in immune activity that have occurred. Without these relapses, measuring disease progression becomes much more difficult because it tends to happen gradually over a much longer period of time. Thus, clinicians have difficulty in identifying whether a given therapy is actually impacting disease progression. As a result, finding effective treatments for progressive MS has become a major problem facing researchers.
The National MS Society has undertaken a number of initiatives to figure out what makes the disease progressive and how damage can be halted. Researchers are looking closely at the mechanisms behind brain and spinal cord injuries caused by MS to identify potential pathways for stopping damage. Advanced imaging techniques are allowing researchers to define and track MS disease activity in novel ways that include recording the development of MS lesions and shrinkage of the brain and spinal cord. In addition, researchers have undertaken large-scale studies that track individuals with MS in order to identify potential risk factors for progression.
The organization is now part of the International Progressive MS Alliance, which connects research funding agencies from around the world to promote collaborative efforts now taking place in 11 countries.
Recent Victories in the Struggle to Treat Progressive MS
In recent years, the National MS Society has made advancements toward understanding progressive MS and treating it more effectively. For example, researchers at Harvard funded by the organization have found a direct correlation between levels of vitamin D in blood serum in the early stages of the disease and later progression. Other researchers supported by the organization have identified a biomarker that could help predict MS progression. The biomarker, Tob1, is associated with immune cells and could help to identify people at risk of secondary progressive MS.
Researchers at a hospital in Boston launched a large-scale, long-term study of disease progression that showed how disease changed at or around menopause for women. At this stage of life, disease-related disability tended to accumulate rapidly, which could point to potential interventions.
The National MS Society teamed with its sister organization in the United Kingdom to fund University College of London researchers, who made a groundbreaking discovery that will result in conformational studies. The researchers showed that people with optic nerve inflammation, which is typically the first symptom of MS, had significantly less damage to the nerve fiber layer if they took the epilepsy treatment phenytoin.
Collaborators from the United States and Germany have also recently reported promising lab results on a new class of compound. The novel compound has the potential to protect the nervous system and disable autoimmune attacks, which point to a new way of slowing disease evolution in individuals with progressive MS.
The Potential for More Gains in the Near Future
Many researchers are now focusing on progressive MS with support from the National MS Society. Some of the clinical trials currently being funded are looking at therapies with nerve-protecting properties in patients with secondary progressive MS and at a biomarker that could help monitor benefits of certain therapies in individuals with progressive disease. Clinicians are also looking at the efficacy of lipoic acid and ibudilast for patients with progressive forms of MS. Some other drugs currently being examined for use in progressive MS include laquinimod, siponimod, and masitinib.