Can bugs really trigger SPMS?

If you’ve been diagnosed with MS, then your first question may well have been ‘Why me?’. And it’s a good one. Despite the fact the disease affects around 2.5 million people worldwide, researchers have yet to reveal a definitive cause.

We know that your chances of developing MS are increased by a combination of factors, including your genes, and vitamin D levels (you can read more about these here). Lifestyle factors like smoking or carrying too many pounds can also increase your risk. What we don’t yet fully understand is what tips the balance from a person being susceptible to the disease, to them actually developing it.

Epstein Barr virus and MS

In fact, scientists have long suspected that an infectious agent such as a virus could be the missing link when it comes to developing MS – and recent evidence certainly suggests they might be on the right track. Several studies have found a connection between MS and exposure to a common virus called Epstein Barr (EBV). Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health, for example, found that levels of antibodies (immune proteins that show a person has been exposed to an infectious agent) to EBV were much higher in people who developed MS than those who didn’t. They also found that people who had a specific immune-related gene and high levels of antibodies to EBV were much more likely to develop MS than those without the gene who had low levels of the antibodies.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. In a new study in Australia, researchers extracted T-cells (a form of white blood cell) from people with progressive MS and primed the cells to attack the EB virus. The cells were then injected back into the subjects twice a week for six weeks. Of the six people who took part – all of whom had moderate to severe disability – three showed significant improvements in a range of symptoms including fatigue and mobility. Obviously this was a tiny study, but the results are encouraging nonetheless, not least because they offer hope for a possible treatment for progressive forms of MS. You can be sure we’ll keep you updated on any more breakthroughs.

MS and gut changes

In the meantime, EBV isn’t the only pesky bug MS researchers are interested in right now – bacteria are under the spotlight, too. In a recent study, scientists in America compared the gut bacteria of 71 people with MS, with 71 healthy individuals, and made an interesting discovery. People with MS had four times more of two types of bacteria (Acinetobacter and Akkermansia) than the healthy group; while the healthy group had four times more of a bacterium called Parabacteroides.

It gets better: when the researchers exposed immune cells from healthy individuals to the MS gut bacteria, the former turned into helper T cells – the same ones responsible for the inflammation seen in MS. What’s more, the MS gut bacteria triggered brain inflammation when injected into mice.

This isn’t the only study to have investigated gut flora changes in MS. Scientists in Germany had very similar findings when comparing the guts of 34 identical twins (one of each of which had MS). They, too, noted that Akkermansia was more abundant in the MS patients than in their healthy twins – and again, the MS gut bacteria induced brain inflammation in mice.

We’ve long known that the balance of gut bacteria is closely linked with immune health, now the researchers need to work out what it is that triggers changes in the microbiomes (the balance of different bacteria in the body) of people with MS. Who knows, maybe it could be a virus?

Though it’ll be some time before we have the answers, what’s certain is that scientists are definitely asking the right questions. It’s an exciting time for MS research. Watch this space.

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Jamie Tripp Utitus
Written by
Jamie Tripp Utitus
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