Cincinnati team focuses on infection as MS cause
BY PEGGY O'FARRELL | POFARRELL@ENQUIRER.COM
Research under way at the University of Cincinnati could one day help short-circuit the most disabling forms of multiple sclerosis.
Istvan Pirko, a neurologist and researcher in UC's Waddell Center for Multiple Sclerosis, is leading a team of researchers studying the role certain cells in the body's immune system play in the development of multiple sclerosis.
In the disease, the immune system seems to attack myelin, a fatty substance that insulates the nerves. As the insulation is worn away, various symptoms begin, including loss of vision, balance and coordination and muscle weakness and fatigue.
The exact cause of multiple sclerosis is unknown, but some experts believe exposure to environmental toxins or a viral infection might trigger the attack.
Pirko's research focuses on the infection theory. He and his team inject mice with viruses to re-create the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, including tell-tale lesions on the brain.
Among the team's projects:
Creating, for the first time, bleeding brain lesions in mice that mimic the effects of human pediatric multiple sclerosis.
With the project, researchers have identified viral proteins and genes that might be responsible for triggering the response of certain "killer" immune cells that attack the nervous system.
The project has also helped researchers map the development of the bleeding lesions. Pirko hopes the project could result in new drugs or other therapies to stop or slow formation of the lesions.
Tracking brain shrinkage and spinal cord atrophy caused by multiple sclerosis with a series of MRI scans.
Pirko said the scans document for the first time that the shrinkage and atrophy, long suspected, actually happen.
The images show what specific structures in the nervous system are targeted. Now, researchers hope to find out whether the damage is caused by the myelin loss or the death of nerve cells, and what drugs or other therapies might stop the process.
Creating very severe brain lesions in mice that are comparable to "black hole" formations found in the brains of humans with severely disabling forms of multiple sclerosis.
"We don't always see these in patients, but we know when we do that the patients are going to be in more trouble," Pirko said.
Researchers believe the lesions are caused by immune cells "just eating holes" in brain tissue, he said, and hope to learn how that process occurs and how to stop it.