Friday, June 08, 2007

Study shines light on possible MS cause

By Kamahl Cogdon
June 08, 2007 01:00am

SLIP, slop, slapping to avoid skin cancer could be exposing people to increased risk of multiple sclerosis.

Researchers believe rising rates of MS could be linked to reduced levels of vitamin D, which is produced in the body by sunlight.

About 18,000 Australians are thought to have MS, where the body's killer T cells attack the protective myelin sheath around nerve fibres in the brain.

The disease usually strikes people aged in the 20s and 30s, progressively breaking down functions like mobility and eyesight or hitting in unpredictable bursts punctuated by temporary remissions.

MS Research Australia executive director Jeremy Wright said the number of MS cases was jumping by about six or seven per cent each year.

"We're seeing up to 1000 new cases every year, and that is now outpacing the rate of population growth," he said.

Mr Wright said it was unclear what was behind the rise, but there was growing evidence of a link to sunlight and vitamin D.

He said research showed the further people lived from the equator, the greater the rate of MS.

Mr Wright said Victoria's MS rate was four to five times higher than that of Queensland.

He said Victorians needed 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight exposure two to three days a week to give them adequate vitamin D levels.

"One theory is maybe we've gone a bit over the top with the slip, slop, slap campaign," Mr Wright said.

He said another favoured theory was that our increasingly hygienic environments meant our immune systems did not develop properly.

"Our children have less exposure to nasty things that might give them diseases and excite the immune system into action early in life," Mr Wright said.

"If you don't use your immune system early, it doesn't learn how to become strong against other diseases later."

Mr Wright said research promised major breakthroughs in MS.

He said new drugs that could dramatically reduce the number of attacks suffered by people with the relapse-remitting form of the disease were being tested and could be on the market within five years.

Other researchers, including at Melbourne and Monash universities, were making advances in the repair of damaged cells that made up the myelin sheath.