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NIH grant will allow researchers to look for viral cause of most severe form of multiple sclerosis

SALT LAKE CITY A team of investigators from the University of Utah has received a two-year, $275,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund novel research that may help to uncover a viral cause for the most acute and severe form of multiple sclerosis. These studies will use an advanced technology called deep sequencing to analyze brain tissue from patients who died of primary progressive multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis (MS), which affects an estimated 400,000 people in the United States, is an autoimmune disease that leads to nerve damage in the brain and spinal cord. This damage is caused by inflammation that occurs when the body's own immune system attacks the myelin sheath, a fatty protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. Loss of myelin affects the ability of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to conduct the electrical signals needed for them to communicate with each other. To date, it is not known what prompts the damaging inflammation, but many investigators believe there is an environmental trigger, possibly a viral or other infection.

"Our preliminary data has already led to identification of a virus in the brain of one patient who died of primary progressive MS," says John D. Kriesel, M.D., research associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "Using a technology called deep sequencing, we will now be studying brain tissue from a group of primary progressive MS patients, with the hope of isolating one or more viruses that might prove to be the cause of this severe type of MS."

Deep sequencing, otherwise known as high-throughput sequencing, is a technology that allows scientists to sequence very large amounts of DNA more quickly and at a lower cost than traditional sequencing methods. Kriesel and his colleagues will utilize deep sequencing to study the brain tissue of 15 patients who died of primary progressive MS and compare it to brain tissue from a population of controls, including normal patients and people with other neurologic diseases.

The sequencing data generated will then be analyzed for viral genetic material in order to identify viruses that are unique to the brain tissue of people with primary progressive MS.

MS is classified into four types, which differ in symptom intensity and rate of disease progression. While treatment has been effective for some forms of MS, the standard medications for MS have not been shown to slow the progression of neurologic decline in people with primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS). Identifying viruses that might play a role in the development of PPMS could eventually lead to the development of screening tests, prevention, or anti-viral treatments for the disease.

"Currently, there is no approved or highly effective treatment for PPMS," says Kriesel. "The goal of our research is to define a cause for PPMS, so that future investigation can be directed at developing medicines that can slow or stop the progression of this devastating neurologic disease."


Contact: John D. Kriesel, M.D.
University of Utah Health Sciences

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