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Inexpensive Blood Test Offers New Hope for Multiple Sclerosis Patients

by Jennifer Wider, MD

(Washington DC; 7/24/03)  People with multiple sclerosis (MS) may benefit from earlier diagnosis using cheap and easy blood tests, according to a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine (7/10/03). The detection of specific antibodies in the blood may allow for earlier detection and prompt treatment in patients suspected of having MS. Because new and evolving therapies have the potential for slowing the progression of the disease, earlier treatments may mean better outcomes for patients.

Researchers from the Department of Neurology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria examined blood samples from 103 patients who experienced a neurological event, suggesting MS. Patients were further examined using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cerebrospinal fluid samples. The researchers set out to determine if the presence of antibodies in the blood to two specific proteins could predict the onset of clinically definite multiple sclerosis.

The use of antibodies as markers has significant implications for patients with multiple sclerosis. According to Dr. Thomas Berger, lead researcher and professor at the Department of Neurology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria: "This is the first test with a biological marker which can predict the individual risk to a patient of having clinically definite MS." In other words, the results of the blood test can determine whether or not initial symptoms may indicate a diagnosis of MS. Patients who do not have the antibodies in their bloodstream may not develop the disease. "Patients without initial antibody seropositivity probably will never get clinically definite MS," explains Dr. Berger.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system. The cause of MS is unknown, but most researchers believe it is an autoimmune disease. The symptoms of MS are often unpredictable and can vary between patients. Some of the more common symptoms include: numbness or weakness in one or more limbs, repetitive pain or tingling sensations in various parts of the body, impaired vision which is often accompanied by pain with eye movement, fatigue, dizziness and lack of coordination or tremor. When the disease progresses, patients may experience muscle spasms, slurred speech, problems with bladder or bowel control and paralysis. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, most people are between the ages of 20-50 when diagnosed with the disease. Like other autoimmune diseases, MS affects women 2-3 times more than men.

The progression of MS is variable and patients are often left with little information about their prognosis. The results of Dr. Berger's research may shed light on the ambiguity for MS patients, "The test may have consequences and advantages for the patients in terms of counseling and early treatment." Studies have shown that patients at high risk for developing MS can be treated effectively, "Immediate early treatment with interferon-beta-1a ... has been approved for patients with clinically isolated symptoms." In addition, two other disease-modifying agents, interferon beta 1-b and glatiramer acetate, also known as immunomodulators, are recognized as effective therapeutic options following a diagnosis of MS and may be approved for patients who are at risk of developing clinically definite MS. Early treatment may slow the progression of the disease.

The results of the study suggest that patients who experience symptoms suggestive of MS can have their blood examined for antibodies, and if positive, can be treated early and effectively. Currently, the test is not available in the United States. "We are trying hard to make this test available within the next 6-12 months," comments Dr. Berger. "In addition, I believe that in the near future, several labs in the US will try to establish our test."

Click here for more information on multiple sclerosis.

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its Board of Directors.

Created: 7/24/2003  -  Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 8/10/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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