May 30, 2019 is World MS day. A day to raise awareness for multiple sclerosis, specifically for the search for solutions. About time for a conversation with Inge Huitinga, director of the Netherlands Brain Bank for MS and group leader at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, about the progress in the research into multiple sclerosis and the search for therapies. “We think the solution can be found in the brain.”
At the beginning of this year, Inge Huitinga was appointed professor of neuroimmunology at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences (SILS) at the University of Amsterdam. This chair is established by the Dutch MS research foundation and focuses on the immunological mechanisms in the brain, especially in multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is characterized by inflammations that lead to the breakdown of myelin, the insulating sheath of nerve cells in the brain. In some cases, the brain can repair the breakdown but it otherwise leads to the development of scar tissue. As a result, electrical stimuli are poorly guided by nerve cells, which can cause neurological problems, such as paralysis and problems with talking or thinking.
The inflammations that occur in MS can be divided into different phases. “In recent years, we have worked hard to map and analyze all those different stages of MS inflammations in order to investigate the changes between them”, Inge explains. And with result. The Netherlands Brain Bank for MS, part of the Netherlands Brain Bank, has a unique collection of brain tissue in which all these different phases of MS are carefully documented. “We have mapped the progression of MS at a molecular level and found interesting things.” For instance, brain tissue in the first stage of MS does not appear to contain any abnormalities, but research at the molecular level shows that a breakdown of myelin already occurs. “We need to understand what happens at that stage, because that is the beginning of MS. If we can stop that process, we can hopefully also stop MS”, says Inge.
The research group also examines the processes that underlie the expansion and recovery of MS inflammations in the hope of finding therapeutic targets. The amount of stress hormones in the brain for example appears to influence the progression of MS inflammations and growth factors appear to be involved in the recovery. “We are now investigating whether these stress hormones serve as protectors and the growth factors as repairers.” Furthermore, they investigate the possibility that a virus plays a role in the onset of MS, for which Inge’s group by chance found genetic indications.
The research group’s understanding of the exact processes underlying MS is rapidly advancing. In addition, Inge hopes to speed up the progress of MS research worldwide. “We are convinced that the solution for MS can be found in the brain. That is why we have made it our mission to make our unique collection of brain tissue from people with MS and our research results available for the scientific world.” This way, researchers worldwide can simultaneously work on solving their piece of the puzzle.
Photo: Henk Stoffels