From monkeys to medication: New research into helping people with MS

More than 400,000 Americans are living with Multiple Sclerosis, a chronic, unpredictable disease that attacks the central nervous system.

Now, new discoveries could help scientists come up with better treatments for the disease and even prevent its onset.

Whether parachuting, fishing, or enjoying the beach, Susan Dobroff has always pictured herself as an outdoors woman.

Susan Dobroff, Living with MS, explains why she enjoys the outdoors so much, "It's like being in touch with God."

Not even Multiple Sclerosis could dampen her active lifestyle. Two years after being diagnosed, she started law school.

Dobroff explains how she decided to go to law school, "I realized, you know, you've been thinking about going to law school for a long time so got to do it sooner rather than later."

10 years after her diagnosis, Susan began to lose her ability to walk. Eventually, her legal career came to a grinding halt, too.

Dobroff explains how she struggle after awhile with her job, "Lawyers don't need to walk and run in order to practice law but we do have to think."

Now Japanese Macaques could hold the key to helping people like Susan. Scientists at the Oregon National Primate Center have discovered a new herpes virus in monkeys that causes an MS like disease in Macaques.

These brain lesions are a classic indicator of inflammation in people with MS. The discovery could help scientists solve how the disease develops and stop its onset.

Scott W. Wong, PhD Professor and Senior Scientist Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Oregon National Primate Research Center, describes how big the discovery was, "That's the ultimate goal. It's a huge finding."

From monkeys to medication, a new drug called Ocrelizumab is also showing promise in treating MS. In preliminary studies, the antibody drug reduced the amount of brain lesions in patients. Findings that could one day help people like Susan stay active.

An active ingredient found in saffron called crocin could also help MS patients.

Researchers at the University of Alberta studied the ingredient and found it could help protect brain cells from being damaged.


REPORT: MB #3431

BACKGROUND: Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). More than 400,000 Americans suffer from MS. The disease is caused by damage to the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells, called the myelin sheath. When these nerve cells are damaged, it causes nerve signals to slow down or stop completely. The nerve damage is usually caused by inflammation that occurs when the body's own immune cells attack the nervous system occurring in any area of the spinal cord, brain, and optic nerve. So far, the cause of this disease is unknown, but commonly it is thought to happen because of either a virus or gene defect. People who have a family history of MS or live in an area where MS is more common might be more likely to develop this disease.

SYMPTOMS: As with many diseases, symptoms vary due to the severity of each attack. Episodes may last days, weeks, or months and are usually followed with a remission. Because nerves in any part of the brain or spinal cord may be damaged, patients with multiple sclerosis can have symptoms in many parts of the body.

1. Muscle symptoms: Tremor in one or more arms or legs, weakness in one or more arms or legs, problems walking, problems moving arms or legs, numbness or abnormal sensation in any area, muscle spasms, loss of balance, and problems with coordination and making small movements.
2. Bowel and bladder symptoms: Constipation and stool leakage, urine leakage, strong urge to urinate, frequent need to urinate, and difficulty beginning to urinate.
3. Eye symptoms: Double vision, vision loss (usually only one eye at a time), eye discomfort,
uncontrollable rapid eye movements.
4. Numbness, tingling, or pain: Painful muscle spasms, facial pain, tingling, crawling, or burning feeling in the arms and legs.
5. Other brain and nerve symptoms: Decreased attention span, poor judgment, and memory loss, depression or feelings of sadness, hearing loss, and dizziness. (Source:

NEW RESEARCH: So far there is not a known cure for MS. There are available medications and therapies to control symptoms, but the most recent discovery was found by the Oregon National Primate Research Center. They found that a natural disease in Japanese macaque monkeys (called Japanese macaque encephalomyelitis) is very similar to multiple sclerosis in humans. From 1986 through 2010, 56 monkeys at the research center developed paralysis in their legs and had to be euthanized. Later, the researchers performed MRI scans on eight monkeys and they found the MS-like disease caused the paralysis. The disease in the monkeys is very similar to a herpes virus. Researchers believe that a type of herpes virus could actually trigger MS in patients who have the disease in their genes. Understanding how the herpes virus causes the disease similar to MS will give new important knowledge to developing more effective treatments for the disease or new methods to prevent the disease. (Source:

OCRELIZUMAB: One characteristic of MS is inflammation, which takes the form of brain lesions. Ocrelizumab is a new antibody drug that has been proven to reduce the amount of brain lesions in MS patients. The drug successfully targets B cells, immune cells implicated in multiple sclerosis. B cells are now believed to drive the abnormal immune response in MS patients. An international multi-center study (79 centers in 20 countries) was conducted on 218 patients aged 18-55 years with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and were split into 4 different groups. One group of 54 patients received placebo. The second and third groups of 54 received low and high doses of ocrelizumab. The fourth received the standard once-weekly treatment of intramuscular interferon beta-1a. After 24 weeks, researchers found the number of active lesions was 89% lower in the ocrelizumab low-dose group and 96% lower in the high-dose group compared with the placebo group. The study showed that the drug rapidly reduced brain lesions in MS patients and could lead to fewer relapse

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