Multiple Sclerosis research doubles number of genes associated with the disease

The largest study to have ever been undertaken into the genetic component of multiple sclerosis has identified 29 new genetic variants connected with this debilitating neurological disease.

Multiple sclerosis is one of the most common neurological conditions among young adults, affecting around 2.5 million individuals worldwide. The disease results from damage to nerve fibres and their protective insulation, the myelin sheath, in the brain and spinal cord. The affected pathways - responsible in health for everyday activities such as seeing, walking, feeling, thinking and controlling the bowel and bladder – are prevented from 'firing' properly and eventually are destroyed. The findings announced today focus attention on the pivotal role of the immune system in causing the damage and help to explain the nature of the immune attack on the brain and spinal cord.

An international team of more than 250 researchers jointly led by Oxford and Cambridge Universities and funded by The Wellcome Trust has analysed more than 15 billion pieces of genetic information from over 30,000 people from 15 different countries. 57 genetic associations have now been made to the disease. Prof Peter Donnelly, Director of WTCHG and co-leader of the study, said “Our findings highlight the value of large genetic studies in uncovering key biological mechanisms underlying common human diseases. This would simply not have been possible without a large international network of collaborators, and the participation of many thousands of patients suffering from this debilitating disease.” Prof. Alastair Compston, from Cambridge University, who co-led the study with Peter Donnelly, endorsed the importance of the findings, “It is now clear that multiple sclerosis is primarily an immunological disease. This has important implications for future treatment strategies.”

Another very interesting feature of the findings was the substantial overlap between some of the genetic variants associated with MS and variants associated with other autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.