Hope for a vaccine that would rid world of MS

Multiple sclerosis affects 9,000 people in Ireland, and a breakthrough by scientists could eventually lead to a vaccine to prevent it
Hope for a vaccine that would rid world of MS

Multiple Sclerosis affects 9,000 people in Ireland and almost three million people worldwide

LIKE Brexit before it, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the dominant news story for so long that other big stories of national or international significance get lost in the news cycle and don’t get the attention they deserve.

With the whiplash from moving from the narrative of Omicron overrunning the country to the almost complete removal of pandemic restrictions mere weeks later, you can be forgiven for missing some pretty major stories in the last month or so. Here are two I think warrant further attention.

An end to MS?

Harvard researchers have definitively shown the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a leading cause of the neurodegenerative disease multiple sclerosis.

MS affects 9,000 people in Ireland and almost three million people worldwide. It is a devastating diagnosis, usually in early adulthood, because the chronic inflammatory disease causes damage in the brain and spinal cord, resulting in a range of life-altering symptoms such as pain, fatigue, tremors and balance problems.

For a long time, researchers believed that the development of MS in people was caused by a mixture of genetic make-up and environmental factors. There was an understanding that EBV was associated with MS but the Harvard study has demonstrated that EBV is the spark that lights the fire and has paved the way for possible new treatments that tackle EBV as a root cause of multiple sclerosis.

It’s important to realise that EBV is very common - 95% of the world’s population is infected, it is from the family of human herpesviruses; chickenpox and shingles are close cousins.

It infects our immune cells and for most people it lays dormant in our cells for our lifetime. Scientists think that what could be happening in people with MS is that antibodies created by their immune system to fight EBV are causing damage elsewhere in their body, specifically in the insulating sheath of myelin which protects nerve cells.

The Harvard study was special because it managed to track a group of people who were not initially infected with EBV (which is hard because so many people in the world have EBV).

They did this by collaborating with the U.S military and conducted a study among more than 10 million young adults on active duty in the U.S. military over a 20-year period from 1992-2013. On entry into the military, recruits give blood samples and donate every two years during their service. These samples are stored, allowing for retrospective analysis by the Harvard researchers, who found of the 10 million young adults, 955 were diagnosed with MS during their period of service.

Researchers looked at these 955 people’s blood samples and determined the soldiers’ EBV status at time of first sample and the relationship between EBV infection and MS onset.

In this group, the risk of MS increased 32-fold after infection with EBV, but was unchanged after infection with other viruses. Levels of a biomarker of the nerve degeneration typical in MS, increased only after EBV infection.

Announcing the publication in the journal, Science, Alberto Ascherio, professer of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School, said: “This is a big step because it suggests that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping EBV infection, and that targeting EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS… Currently there is no way to effectively prevent or treat EBV infection, but an EBV vaccine or targeting the virus with EBV-specific antiviral drugs could ultimately prevent or cure MS.”

Many scientists also think EBV is a possible culprit in the development of certain cancers and autoimmune diseases, and the good news is that a company called Atara Biotherapeutics is conducting Phase 2 trials of a new drug to treat EBV.

The holy grail would be a vaccine that protects us from EBV, and Moderna has started Phase 1 clinical trials of a new EBV vaccine.

There is still much to discover and understand about the biological processes between EBV infection and onset of MS, but researchers in the field are hopeful that they might eventually be able to rid the world of multiple sclerosis.

Thwaites Glacier

Another story that I thought deserved more attention was that of the demise of Thwaites Glacier.

The witticism ‘Ireland is Like A Bottle, It Would Sink without Cork’ emblazoned on an electricity box in Parnell Street came to mind in December, when climate scientists announced that an Antarctic glacier, Thwaites Glacier, a frozen mass of water almost 2.5 times the size of Ireland, was in serious danger.

Scientists described how warm ocean water in Antarctica is melting an ice shelf that sits in front of the Thwaites Glacier. This ice shelf acts like a cork in a bottle of water, holding back an enormous amount of ice. If the ice shelf/cork goes and all the ice of Thwaites Glacier eventually enters the sea, sea levels would rise by 65 centimetres.

This isn’t going to happen today or tomorrow, but scientists predicted the cork could possibly go in the next 5-10 years, clearing the way for the Antarctic ice sheet to start entering the water.

This news was mainly met with silence by the world’s politicians preoccupied with Covid-19.

Scientists don’t like the term Doomsday Glacier because it suggests a certain amount of inevitability about the collapse of the glacier, when in fact much uncertainty exists, and humanity still has the (increasingly harder to believe will happen) option of halting warming.

Not only would Cork be in serious trouble in this scenario, so would all the major coastal cities of the world. Now surely that should be front page news!

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