Icelandic scientists contribute to MS findings

Three teams of researchers, including a group based in Reykjavik, Iceland, have pooled their data and made ground-breaking conclusions about the genetic causes of MS or multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis is a common neurological disease which largely affects the muscles. It occurs when the body’s immune system begins to attack the electrical insulation around nerve-fibres leading to weakness in muscles and often times paralysis.

To date, researchers have been confined to guessing the specific genes which contribute to the disease, then attempting to verify if patients do in fact have abnormal versions of that gene. Over 100 genes have been researched in this way, with no conclusive evidence favouring any of them.

Using two different methods, three teams of scientists came to the same conclusion about which genes are responsible for the disease. By pooling data for collective analysis, the scientists, who work for various American universities as well as institutions across the world, reached the conclusion that several genes make up a pathway leading to the disease. Further research will now be concentrated on exploring this pathway in the hopes of finding a prevention or cure for the disease.

Scientists who contributed to these findings came from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the University of California in San Francisco, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, the Korlinska Institute in Stockholm and Decode Genetics, a company from Iceland.

Decode Genetics’ Chief Executive, Kari Stefansson, who has been researching the disease for over 20 years, described the breakthrough as, “a very good beginning”. Foreign collaboration was key to the study’s success, as there was insufficient people with the disease in Iceland to be able to conduct statistical analysis of their genetic patterns.

Although the breakthrough is important, it does not yet mean a cure for the common disease. Stefansson noted that multiple sclerosis is often unpredictable and that clinical trials in the future will be difficult to conduct. “But once you have an ironclad discovery,” he said, “then you have the motivation to endure the expense of a long clinical trial.”