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Research changing the lives of those with MS

Photo: MS Research Australia
More than 23,000 Australians are currently living with Multiple Sclerosis, with around 95 people in every 100,000 diagnosed with the potentially debilitating condition.

Unfortunately, these numbers are increasing. Recent studies have confirmed steady growth in MS rates over the past five decades, though the reason behind the rise is unclear.

Despite the increase, the outlook of those diagnosed with the disease has seen a dramatic improvement in recent years, thanks to multiple ground-breaking developments in diagnosis methods and available treatment.

Until the 1990s there were no treatments available for people with MS at all. Beyond that, injectable treatments, the interferons and glatiramer acetate were introduced, reducing relapse rates on average by 30 per cent, though these were not always well tolerated.
But the last five years has seen the treatment landscape completely transformed, according to MS Research Australia CEO, Dr Matthew Miles.

“More than 8 new treatments have been introduced including oral medications and infusions that can be given very infrequently - monthly, 6 monthly or even more than a year apart, depending on the medication,” says Dr Miles.

“Many of these treatments are also highly effective in suppressing the relapses and stopping lesions from forming in the brain.”

This means that most people with relapsing MS can find an effective medication that is suited to their own clinical and personal circumstances.

While advancements for people with progressive MS have been slower, Australia has recently seen the approval of Ocrevus, the first medication to combat primary progressive MS - the continuous gradual accumulation of disability, which accounts for around 15 per cent of people with the disease.

“This medication has been shown in clinical trials to slow disability progression  by up to 25 per cent,” says Dr Miles.

“So it is not going to stop progressive disease in it’s tracks, but it is a very important and a much-needed first step in treatments for progressive MS.”

Diagnostic tools and processes have also seen significant change, meaning people with MS are able to treat and manage their condition quickly and effectively.

“Diagnosis is now much earlier and easier with the advent of very clear diagnostic guidelines that include the use of MRI scans to make an earlier diagnosis of definite MS,” says Dr Miles.

Developments in this area are continuing at an impressive rate, with numerous studies, trials and potential new treatment methods in the pipeline, thanks to the dedication of research organisations such as MS Research Australia, which was recently named the 2017 Telstra Australian Charity of the Year.

“None of these changes would have happened without research,” says Dr Miles.

“Epidemiological research (is being undertaken) to identify the risk factors for MS that will ultimately help us to prevent MS altogether, and is already helping us to give the best advice to people with MS on how to minimise the impact of MS.

“Immunology research to identify new treatments to stop the relapses of MS, and neurobiology research is now paving the way for us to find ways to prevent the permanent damage to nerve cells that causes ongoing and permanent disability, and to repair the loss of myelin and restore function to damaged nerve fibres.”

MS Research Australia has recently teamed up with Macquarie Group Foundation to form a Paired Fellowship Program, providing hope to people living with MS by putting laboratory and clinical science side-by-side. The program aims to fast-track groundbreaking research, translating into reality for the benefit of the MS community.

In addition to the development of diagnostic tools and treatment, the research undertaken by MS Research Australia has enabled those with MS to more effectively manage their condition through lifestyle.

“It used to be the case that people with MS were advised to avoid exercise due to concerns this could exacerbate symptoms, however, studies have shown the benefits of physical activity for managing symptoms such as fatigue and maintaining physical function and quality of life,” says Dr Miles.

Further information is being obtained through studies and trials on an ongoing basis, with continued research the only way to continue to improve the future management of MS.

“The research MS Research Australia is supporting to identify ways to repair myelin holds the very great promise of reversing the effects of MS, taking away symptoms and disabilities.

“And this is the single greatest priority for people affected by MS, regardless of what impact MS is having on their lives now, mild or severe, they all want the same thing - a cure for MS via repair or regeneration of the damage done.

“This goes hand in hand with effective treatments to completely and precisely suppress the parts of the immune system that are at fault in causing the relapses and damage in MS – stop the ongoing immune attacks, with minimal or no side effects, repair the damage – stopping and reversing MS for good.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.