Friday, February 16, 2007

Unravel a mystery

Bernadette Condren
February 16, 2007 11:00pm

KAREN Burkhardt's specialist was shocked when her immediate response to being diagnosed with MS in 2002 was relief.

"I can remember saying to the doctor 'that's OK, I can live with that'," the mother of two said from her Yeppoon home.
"He said 'I've never had anyone say it was OK'."

An MS diagnosis isn't something that is generally welcomed but Mrs Burkhardt had been having tests for a suspected brain tumour after waking one morning with an unexplained loss of vision in one eye.

"It was completely black and I couldn't see a thing," she said.

MS is one of medicine's great unknown diseases. It randomly attacks the central nervous system and symptoms can range from tingling and numbness to paralysis and blindness. There is no known cure, its progression follows no set pattern and people with it have no idea, no clue of how it will affect them.

Scientists and medical professionals have spent decades trying to unravel the root of the illness, to find some clue that may lead to at the least a better understanding of what causes it and at best to a cure.

Last week those research efforts received a significant boost when Multiple Sclerosis Research Australia announced the largest number ever in any one year of eight post-graduate scholarships and post-doctoral fellowships for MS research.

University of Queensland professor and neurologist Michael Pender was a recipient of MSRA largesse when he was given $450,000 to further his UQ-based team's research into a possible link between MS and the virus that causes glandular fever – the Epstein-Barr virus.

Professor Pender has spent more than 20 years grappling with the mysteries and complexities of MS and said there were some interesting figures:
• 99 per cent of people with MS had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.

• 90 per cent of adults in the general population had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.

• 99 per cent of children aged between four and 16 diagnosed with MS had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.

• 72 per cent of children in the general population aged between four and 16 had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.

"The evidence is that in order for MS to develop the person has to have been infected with the EB virus but clearly being infected by the virus is itself not enough to lead to MS because 90 per cent of the adult world population eventually get affected by the virus," Professor Pender said.

"There are genetic factors that predispose people to MS and it's probably those genetic factors that make people more susceptible to the effects of the virus infection that leads into MS, so we're investigating how infection with the virus may be related to the development of MS."

The professor's theory involves two types of white blood cells that help our body fight infection: B lymphocytes that produce antibodies to fight viruses and bacteria; and T lymphocytes that help the body fight difficult infections and cancers.

In all the people infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, the virus lives in B cells but it is kept in check by the T cells.

MS is an autoimmune disease where the body's own immune system attacks the nervous system, the brain and spinal cord. A defect in the ability of the T cells to kill infected B cells could lead to an increased number of these infected B cells that could make antibodies against the brain and could allow other T cells to attack the brain.

"What we're going to test in this research is whether people with MS have a decreased ability of their T cells to kill their own Epstein-Barr virus-infected B cells," he said.

"If that's the case, we could then look into the genes and other factors leading to that defect."

Should his research prove a causal link between MS and the Epstein-Barr virus, Professor Pender hopes it will lead to better treatment and even prevention of MS by controlling the virus, for example, with a vaccine.

For more information log on to