MS and Biomarkers: What’s the Big Deal?

Let’s be honest, most of us only tune in to medical science when it affects us, which is why biomarkers are starting to get a teensy bit interesting. If you’ve read this, you’ll know they’re a big deal for multiple sclerosis researchers – but what do biomarkers actually mean for someone living with multiple sclerosis?

For starters, hopefully a little less uncertainty. Some diseases are very straightforward – a simple blood test confirms a diagnosis. Unfortunately, it’s a different story with MS. Currently, there is no definitive blood test – it’s more a case of ruling out a bunch of other conditions, and then performing further tests including a lumbar puncture and MRIs to back up the diagnosis. But all this could be about to change, thanks to some recent discoveries.

Biomarkers are basically signs within the body that can be objectively measured to provide a hallmark of a disease. Not only can these tell-tale signs help to confirm a diagnosis, but they also allow doctors to monitor the progress of a disease, as well as assess how effective a particular treatment is.

Given that MS can take a long time to diagnose, and brings with it so many unknowns, any science that could provide a clearer picture would be very welcome indeed. Here are just a few new biomarkers researchers are looking into right now:

Lipid Antibodies

Thanks to some genius research, scientists in America have worked out that antibodies to certain lipids (that’s fats to you and I) correspond with specific changes on brain MRIs. The presence of certain antibodies is associated with gray matter damage, for example, while others appear to be linked with white matter damage. What’s more, these specific antibody patterns can be indicative of the severity of disease. The researchers have used all of this information to create a “lipid index” that in theory could be used to monitor the progression of the disease and even predict its course. We now know that gray matter damage is more closely associated with disability and cognitive impairment, for example, than white matter changes. This cutting-edge research hasn’t yet proven to be feasible in the clinical practice, but it could mean that in the future, a simple blood test would answer that million-dollar question – how is my MS likely to affect me in the future?

Cholesterol Levels

In the near future, having a cholesterol test could reveal more than just a snapshot of your heart health. Canadian scientists have noticed a correlation between levels of different types of cholesterol in the blood and severity of MS. Their research shows that higher than normal levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), for example, are associated with more active MS. The studies also suggest that other forms of cholesterol correspond with different forms of the disease. Definitely one to watch.

B Cells

We know that MS is an autoimmune disease but until now scientists have focused largely on how T cells cause myelin damage. Recently, though, researchers have been looking into the role of B cells in this process, particularly a type of B cell that produces an inflammatory cytokine called granulocyte macrophage–colony stimulating factor (or GM-CSF for short!). Not only does this appear to trigger inflammation (suggesting B-cell targeted treatments could be a promising treatment for MS), the presence of these B cells could be a useful biomarker for monitoring MS.

Protein Screening

Scientists in Norway are looking into the presence of particular proteins in cerebrospinal-fluid (CSF) samples, that could one day be used as helpful biomarkers for MS. Interestingly, they discovered MS patients with chronic fatigue were more likely to have increased levels of so-called ‘inflammatory response proteins,’ and lower levels of proteins involved in neuronal tissue development than other MS patients. Another recent study, this time in Germany, revealed findings along similar lines, showing different forms of MS appear to be associated with slightly different protein profiles. In other words, in the future, a simple blood test could reveal the exact form of MS a person has, helping doctors to devise a more effective treatment strategy.

Clearly all of these biomarkers are still in the research stages, but hopefully it won’t be too long before the science makes its way from the labs to a hospital or clinic near you. This could not only mean less uncertainty for anyone living with the condition, but also an even greater likelihood that researchers will find a cure. MS, your days are numbered.

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