Could -omics hold the key to MS?

Multiple sclerosis is a tricky disease which is why scientists have found themselves delving deeper and deeper in a bid to shed light on the mechanisms behind it. In labs across the world, experts are using new technologies to “zoom in” and take a peek at what’s going on at a cellular level.

Molecular research has made incredible strides in the last years. The field of genomics in particular has opened up a whole new understanding of the different molecular pathways that give rise to changes seen in autoimmune diseases like MS . This in turn has given us a better understanding of how drugs affect the body, and could one day be used to reverse the effects of this complex disease.

Here’s a look at some of the so-called “-omics” fields of research that are changing lives, molecule by molecule.

Genomics

Nearly every disease is related in some way or another to our genes . Unlike genetics, which looks at how single genes affect the body, genomics is the study of genomes – the complete set of DNA of an organism .

Thanks to the Human Genome Project, a ground-breaking international initiative that set out to sequence the entire set of human genes (around 25,000 genes , or so!), we now have access to a wealth of information. The completion of this project set the stage for many more research projects to come. Because knowing the “code” of the human DNA is not enough, we also need to understand what this code actually means and how our bodies use this information. In the past few years, we have learned a great deal about how certain genes act together, and the health consequences changes in these genes can cause.

Though there is no single gene that causes MS , genomics allows scientists to look for variations that are more common in people with the condition than in healthy people. What’s more, genome-based research is enabling scientists to develop improved ways of diagnosing the disease, as well as coming up with more effective treatments .

In the future, for example, it’s likely that treatments will be tailored to a person’s particular genes (pharmacogenomics), as we know that people with different genetic make-ups respond in different ways to treatment .

Transcriptomics

The human genome is made up of DNA, which is then converted in the cell into a messenger form called mRNA. It’s this transcript of the original DNA that is then “read” by the ribosomes, molecular machines in the cell. The ribosomes use the chemical transcript as instructions for creating different arrangements of amino acids to form specific proteins . Analysing the entire collection of mRNA sequences in a cell (the transcriptome), allows researchers to work out the amount of gene activity – otherwise known as gene expression – in a certain cell or tissue type .

Studying the transcriptomes of people with MS has helped highlight molecular pathways that trigger T cells to go rogue, and cause the inflammation seen in MS. Not only have these helped scientists to understand the workings of the immune system, this additional knowledge might also lead to new possibilities for treatments that target these pathways .

Proteomics

This is the study of (you guessed it), the proteins produced by our cells’ ribosomes . By studying these proteins, scientists can identify particular molecules or “biomarkers” in the blood or tissues that can be used to detect abnormal processes.

Proteomics is helping researchers to understand the various immune pathways at play in MS . With the help of this specific field of research, the hope is to find and define specific biomarkers that will not only allow an earlier diagnosis but also predict disease progression and response to treatments .

Metabolomics

Okay, this one’s a bit trickier. Metabolites are basically the end products of chemical processes that occur within a cell. So a cell’s metabolome (the collection of these chemical end products) can tell scientists a great deal about the processes that are taking place in the cell . Again, certain metabolites can be used as biomarkers of disease. One study, for example, compared metabolites in the cerebrospinal fluid of people with MS and people without the condition and found differences that suggest that certain metabolic pathways are altered in MS .

Lipidomics

Another important component of our cells are fats (or lipids). One study, for example, found people with MS had altered levels of two lipids (lysoPC and PC, for short), specifically a lower ratio of lysoPC to PC than people with other neurological diseases . Again it’s possible that lipidomics could be used as a way to diagnose the disease in future, as well as providing insight into alternative biochemical pathways of the disease .

So what does all this mean for people with MS?

If the technical terms haven’t completely bamboozled you, then hopefully they’ve given you a good idea of just how seriously researchers are taking MS. The guys and gals in lab coats are basically leaving no cell unturned. Already, these fields are changing the way in which scientists are approaching MS, with many more breakthroughs on the horizon.

By understanding what’s going on at a cellular level, scientists have a much better chance of finding ways to intervene, and block the harmful processes that lead to the destruction of myelin. In time, the data from each of these fields will begin to overlap, providing an even clearer picture of what causes MS and how we can stop it in its tracks. Yes, MS is a sneaky disease – but the researchers are doing their utmost to outsmart it. Bring it on.

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