A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) is a hard lot.
Patients typically get the diagnosis around age 30 after experiencing a series of neurological problems such as blurry vision, wobbly gait or a numb foot. From there, this neurodegenerative disease follows an unforgiving course.
Many people with MS start using some kind of mobility aid — cane, walker, scooter or wheelchair — by 45 or 50, and those with the most severe cases are typically bed-bound by 60. The medications that are currently available don’t do much to slow the relentless march of the disease.
In search of a better option for MS patients, a team of UW-Madison biochemists has discovered a promising vitamin D-based treatment that can halt — and even reverse — the course of the disease in a mouse model of MS. The treatment involves giving mice that exhibit MS symptoms a single dose of calcitriol, the active hormone form of vitamin D, followed by ongoing vitamin D supplements through the diet. The protocol is described in a scientific article that was published online in August in the Journal of Neuroimmunology.
“All of the animals just got better and better, and the longer we watched them, the more neurological function they regained,” says biochemistry professorColleen Hayes, who led the study.
MS afflicts around 400,000 people nationwide, with 200 new cases diagnosed each week. Early on, this debilitating autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks the myelin coating that protects the brain’s nerve cells, causes symptoms including weakness, loss of dexterity and balance, disturbances to vision, and difficulty thinking and remembering. As it progresses, people can lose the ability to walk, sit, see, eat, speak and think clearly.
Current FDA-approved treatments only work for some MS patients and, even among them, the benefits are modest. “And in the long term they don’t halt the disease process that relentlessly eats away at the neurons,” Hayes adds. “So there’s an unmet need for better treatments.”
While scientists don’t fully understand what triggers MS, some studies have linked low levels of vitamin D with a higher risk of developing the disease. Hayes has been studying this “vitamin D hypothesis” for the past 25 years with the long-term goal of uncovering novel preventive measures and treatments. Over the years, she and her researchers have revealed some of the molecular mechanisms involved in vitamin D’s protective actions, and also explained how vitamin D interactions with estrogen may influence MS disease risk and progression in women.
In the current study, which was funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Hayes’ team compared various vitamin D-based treatments to standard MS drugs. In each case, vitamin D-based treatments won out. Mice that received them showed fewer physical symptoms and cellular signs of disease.
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