The Biggest Brains in MS Get Together: ACTRIMS-ECTRIMS 2014

There’s nothing like getting together for a good chat with like-minded people, right? Well the multiple sclerosis scientific community is no different, even if they tend to meet up in huge convention centres rather than a cosy restaurant or nice pub. In fact, there are many large organisations that arrange scientific meetings every year, for leading MS-ologists (yes, some people really call them that!) to come together and share the latest developments in research and treatment strategies.

MS is a complex disease that continues to challenge experts – and for many academics this makes it all the more interesting. As our knowledge of the disease grows, so does our understanding of the intricate relationship between the central nervous system and the immune system deepens. This is something that may not only benefit the treatment of MS, but other autoimmune diseases and conditions affecting the central nervous system, too. If scientists can find the key to unlock MS, then who knows what other doors this could open?

The biggest annual MS-specific get-together in Europe is arranged by the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS). The ECTRIMS congress convenes experts from over 90 countries to come together and share developments. This year, ECTRIMS joined forces with their US counterpart, the equally eminent Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS), and their joint conference took place in Boston, MA, US, on 10–13 September 2014.

One of the themes discussed in Boston was the importance of protecting the brain in MS, and the topic of brain volume loss (BVL) gathered a great deal of attention. Everybody’s brain shrinks as they get older, but in MS this process is slightly accelerated. BVL could be an important marker in disease progression and, thanks to advances in MRI technology, is increasingly being used as an additional outcome measure in clinical trials. This development means that in the future, it might be possible to judge the success of treatment, or compare different treatments, according to the level of diffuse damage (another term for brain volume loss) which occurs in people with MS, in addition to well established measures such as the annualized relapse rate (ARR) or the expanded disability status scale (EDSS).

Clinical trial outcome measures that could give us new insights into the efficacy of MS drugs were in the spotlight at ECTRIMS/ACTRIMS. You may have seen or heard the term ‘disease-activity free’ – free from relapses, with no worsening disability, and no sign of any new damage on an MRI scan. But more recently, DAF has been replaced by ‘no evidence of disease activity’ (NEDA). “One of the reasons for doing this was to allow us to evolve the definition over time, as advances occurred in the field,” explained Professor Gavin Giovannoni on his blog, referring to the potential addition of endpoints like brain volume loss. German neurologist Professor Hans Peter Hartung gave a thought-provoking talk on the subject in Boston, which explored the pros and cons of different treatment strategies and looked at the long-term benefits of aiming for NEDA in terms of slowing disease progression and reducing the likelihood of future disability.

Think research is only for the healthcare professionals? Well, US neurologist Paul Wicks suggested that people with MS have an active role to play too, in his presentation ‘The role of patients as partners in clinical research.’ His talk explored how tracking online lifestyle cannot only improve communication between people with chronic conditions like MS, but also help to generate valuable data for self-awareness. Yes, really – all that time you spend online could make a difference, and using this online portal, your experiences of MS could help improve your own understanding of how it affects your life, too!

Of course, this is just a snapshot of some of the huge number of topics discussed. Above all, conferences like the joint ECTRIMS/ACTRIMS meeting help encourage researchers and neurologists on the front line to share their excitement about the advances they’re making in understanding the disease. Communicating this ground-breaking information not only gives us hope, it allows doctors and those living with MS to be kept abreast of the latest developments in the field.

Perhaps your neurologist made it to Boston for the meeting! It might be interesting to see what he or she thought were the most interesting things shared there. And why not take a look at the conversations that happened on Twitter – check out #ECTRIMS and #MSBoston2014.

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