September 18, 2019

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MS researcher blends science with hope

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/5/2017 (863 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One of the world’s top researchers into multiple sclerosis will be in Winnipeg later this month to discuss the latest research on the debilitating illness that can rob sufferers of mobility, vision and basic bodily functions.

Dr. Wee Yong of the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the professor at the departments of clinical neurosciences and oncology at the University of Calgary, is also the Canada Research Chair in neuroimmunology. He will speak at the MS Connect research event on May 23 at the RBC Convention Centre as part of MS Awareness Month and aims to provide attendees — likely people living with MS or those supporting them — a boost of hope.

In short, things are getting better, he says; sometimes by leaps and bounds, and other times, one baby step at a time.

“It’s a new era of MS research and there is a lot of excitement regarding strategies that promote the repair of myelin,” he says, in speaking recently with the Free Press.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/5/2017 (863 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SUPPLIED</p><p>New treatments promote the repair of myelin, which MS ravages, says Dr. Wee Yong.</p></p>

SUPPLIED

New treatments promote the repair of myelin, which MS ravages, says Dr. Wee Yong.

One of the world’s top researchers into multiple sclerosis will be in Winnipeg later this month to discuss the latest research on the debilitating illness that can rob sufferers of mobility, vision and basic bodily functions.

Dr. Wee Yong of the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the professor at the departments of clinical neurosciences and oncology at the University of Calgary, is also the Canada Research Chair in neuroimmunology. He will speak at the MS Connect research event on May 23 at the RBC Convention Centre as part of MS Awareness Month and aims to provide attendees — likely people living with MS or those supporting them — a boost of hope.

In short, things are getting better, he says; sometimes by leaps and bounds, and other times, one baby step at a time.

"It’s a new era of MS research and there is a lot of excitement regarding strategies that promote the repair of myelin," he says, in speaking recently with the Free Press.

A game-changing class of drugs referred to as DMTs — disease-modifying therapies — have grown in variety over the last decade. "They target the underlying immune responses that have become dysfunctional," he says.

These drugs help stem the advance of MS, which generally presents as remitting and relapsing, meaning it comes and goes.

Darell Hominuk, director of programs and services with MS Society of Canada’s Manitoba division, says he’s seen tremendous progress in treating this form of the disease with these medications in the 14 years he’s been with the organization.

"When I came on board then, there were four disease-modifying therapies to choose from, and now there are 10 with more on their way."

Canada has the highest MS incidence rate in the world, and about 3,400 Manitobans have the disease.

Yet despite advances in treating the disease, in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath that insulates the nerves, which in turn decreases the nerves’ ability to send signals, MS’s cause remains a mystery.

What’s more is the progressive form of MS, which affects about 15 per cent of people with the disease, has been untreatable — at least until very recently.

GENENTECH via AP</p>

GENENTECH via AP

In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a drug called ocrelizumab, which has proven effective treating the progressive form of the disease.

"We should make a note that because there is evidence that a small subset of patients with primary progressive can be helped, so this gives us optimism," Yong says.

It’s a glimmer of hope, but an important one for people with the progressive form of the disease, in which symptoms including fatigue, vision problems, muscle spasms, pain, numbness and tingling grow worse over time.

Like advances in treating those with the relapsing and remitting form of the disease, the theory is one treatment will lead to newer, more effective ones.

"If primary progressive MS can be treated in a few individuals, we hope that we can then do better and come up with perhaps better treatments down the pipeline," Yong says.

Health Canada has yet to approve ocrelizumab for use here.

In the meantime, people with progressive disease, or for that matter the more common relapsing and remitting version, can engage in another form of therapy all on their own that has proven effective: exercise, Yong says.

"It’s widely known that physical activity promotes well being, even though there used to be a time when MS individuals would be asked to rest because fatigue is one of the symptoms of the condition," the researcher says.

Yet a new study led by Yong indicates physical activity can actually regenerate myelin in the disease’s progressive form. The work found mice who exercised regularly showed improvement of symptoms and regeneration, and it’s not a total leap of faith to infer this would also be of benefit to patients with the disease, he says.

"When people are engaged in exercise, we know they feel better, and one of the reasons we think is because of the regeneration of new myelin."

Yong adds more drug treatments are coming. Some have even shown promise in repairing myelin. This means these drugs may not just help treat MS. They may actually stop the disease’s progress and even cure it. Most are in the pre-clinical trials phase — i.e. testing on animals. But others have already shown promise in a lab and are now in the first and second phases of trials involving patients.

While it could still be a few more years before people living with the disease will benefit from these developments, at least a brighter future is on the horizon.

"There are more and more drug manufacturers working on treatments and that will continue to accelerate and improve outcomes as time moves along," Hominuk says.

"That’s the hope."

And for those living with MS, this promise is powerful tonic indeed.

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