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Funding for new wave genetic research in MS

26 March, 2018

MS Research Australia’s latest grant funding round has committed funding to a number of projects aimed at developing better treatments to prevent the immune system from damaging the brain and spinal cord.

  • Dr Yuan Zhou from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Tasmania will investigate whether genes can predict progression or explain why more women than men develop MS.
  • Associate Professor Justin Rubio from the University of Melbourne will be looking at whether genetic changes within brain cells accumulated over a person’s lifetime affect MS progression.
  • Dr Bennet McComish also from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Tasmania will research short repeated sections of DNA in families with MS.

Over 200 genes have been linked to the risk of developing MS. Research is now turning to whether genes also play a role in other aspects of MS such as the fact that more women than men are affected by MS and the progression of the disease. MS Research Australia is proud to be supporting research in this area with three new grants commencing in 2018.

Dr Yuan Zhou

Three out of every four people with MS are women. Dr Yuan Zhou from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Tasmania has been awarded a three-year post-doctoral fellowship to determine whether genes are playing a role in why more women than men develop MS. Part of his project will focus on the genetics of the X chromosome in MS, an area that has not received a lot of research attention in the past. Since females have two X chromosomes and males only one, changes to the genes on the X chromosome may provide clues about how MS develops.

Dr Zhou aims to create a mathematical formula to better predict the course the disease will take in individuals with MS. This formula will take into account both genetic and environmental risk factors and identify how they work together to influence the severity and progression of MS. Interest in the role of environmental risk factors is high since these can potentially be modified and may improve the long term outcomes for people with MS. If we can better predict the likely course of the disease in individuals, then it could help identify the most appropriate treatments and lifestyle modifications to improve outcomes for every individual.

Dr Bennet McComish

Dr Bennet McComish also from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Tasmania, has been awarded an incubator grant to investigate short tandem repeats in MS.

Short tandem repeats, also known as microsatellites, are short sequences of DNA that are repeated many times in a row. They are a normal part of our DNA. However, abnormally long stretches of short tandem repeats have been associated with the development and severity of other diseases.

Incubator grants are specifically designed to help get promising new ideas off the ground and Dr McComish will use this funding to investigate for the first time whether these DNA repeats play a role in families where a number of individuals have MS.

The Menzies team have collected DNA from several families with MS, and Dr McComish will determine if there is any variation in the number of repeats between family members that have MS, and those without the disease. He will also investigate whether the number of repeats is associated with the age of onset or the severity of MS. This novel method for investigating familial MS may provide clues about why the severity and progression of the disease is so diverse in all people with MS, and may open the way to a new area to be studied in people with MS.

Associate Professor Justin Rubio

MS Research Australia and the Trish MS Research Foundation have partnered to award a two-year project grant to Associate Professor Justin Rubio from the University of Melbourne. He will be investigating whether genetic changes in the brain contribute to the progression of MS. Genetic changes were thought to play a large role in why some people with MS progress and others remain relatively stable, however, genetic studies using DNA taken from blood cells of people with MS have been unable to find any link# between genes and progression.

Associate Professor Rubio will instead look at single brain cells taken from the tissues of people who had MS during life, to determine whether genetic changes might have accumulated in brain cells over a person’s lifetime. Even though the cells in our bodies start off all containing the same DNA, individual cells can develop genetic mutations as we age. These mutations in individual cells may influence the way those cells act and function – for example influencing the way they respond to damage in MS. These types of genetic changes could explain why some people develop progressive MS and others don’t. Associate Professor Rubio will use the cutting-edge Next Generation DNA Sequencing techniques that are only now allowing these types of studies to be conducted.

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