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3-27-11 - NIH Awards $1.3 Million Grant to Loma Linda University for MS Research

Every week in the United States, 200 people are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS)—a chronic, often disabling disease, which attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms can be mild such as numbness in limbs, or severe, such as paralysis and loss of vision. But before these patients are diagnosed with MS, most have gone through months or even years of health tests. During that time, their symptoms get worse.

Professors at Loma Linda University (LLU) strive to alleviate symptoms in MS patients thanks to a National Institutes of Health $1.3 million grant. By using cutting-edge technology, the LLU researchers plan to develop new techniques to more accurately diagnose MS earlier, before patients experience severe symptoms. When any part of the nerve, which consists of an axon covered by myelin sheath, is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing MS symptoms. This potentially leads to permanent neurological impairment.

However, there currently isn’t a way to specify the axon degeneration, meaning that some patients receive ineffective treatment. In MS, the earlier and less severe damage is caused by inflammation in the myelin sheath, followed by more severe damage to the axon. While the first kind of damage can be detected, the second type occurs when prolonged inflammation triggers axonal dying-back degeneration, resulting in permanent neuronal loss. Currently, this type of damage has been neglected in MS because there is no tool for non-invasive detection of it.

“Treatments for MS have focused on suppressing the occurrences of inflammation but very little on the more critical neural protection,” says Shu-Wei (Richard) Sun, PhD, assistant professor of biophysics and bioengineering, School of Science and Technology at LLU, and principal investigator of the study, “Understanding neuronal and axonal degeneration in a murine model of human MS.”

Most MS patients exhibit cycles of relapse and remission along the disease progression.

“We suspect that this cycle may relate to the progression from early inflammatory disorder to the process of neurodegeneration,” says Dr. Sun. “It is critical to visualize and differentiate stages of axonal damage, so that therapeutic approaches can be used effectively to target each pathological condition.”

To do that, Dr. Sun will be utilizing diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) coupled with a high-resolution signal on a mouse model of MS. DTI is a clinically available imaging technology. According to Dr. Sun, this project will provide significant clinical impact to MS diagnosis and treatment.

In addition, Wei-Xing Shi, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences and basic sciences, School of Pharmacy and School of Medicine at LLU, and co-investigator of the study, will be recording electrical signals emitted by neurons with a small probe called a microelectrode. Hence, he can verify whether changes revealed by DTI are associated with changes in nerve function.

According to Dr. Shi, multiple sclerosis is one of the most difficult diseases to diagnosis in its early stages. “We’re hoping that before patients show severe symptoms they can receive accurate diagnosis,” says Dr. Shi, “and therefore receive treatment earlier to prevent severe MS symptoms.”


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