Research update on Multiple Sclerosis

17 July 2017

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system).

The disease is characterised by a person’s own immune system attacking the protective myelin sheaths that cover the nerve fibres, causing synaptic disruption between neural connections and the rest of the body. These nerves can deteriorate to the point of becoming permanently inactive.

MS is known as a heterogeneous illness, which means the signs and symptoms can vary greatly between individuals and no disease trajectory is the same as others. Some people may experience mild symptoms and periods of remission while others may experience a severe loss in mobility, such as the ability to walk and live independently.

Even though there is no cure for MS, new technologies and treatments can manage symptoms, speed recovery and even modify the course of the disease.

Known as disease-modifying drugs, these treatments have been shown to reduce exacerbations and slow the progression of MS. However, side effects can prove almost as noxious as the disease itself, ranging from flu-like symptoms to depression, to more sinister ones such as progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a serious viral infection of the brain.

A team of CBR neuroscientists led by Dr Scott Graham, expert in neuroinflammation, and co-investigators Dr Jennifer Pereira; ADHB’s leading MS neurologist, and Dr Simon O’Carroll; Director of the Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCIRF), are currently investigating an unknown soluble substance that appears to have an effect on the permeability of the brain in patients with MS.

The pilot study was made possible by the Neurological Foundation, who gave the team a seeding fund of $12,000 to get started. Recently, the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences awarded the group a $165,000 Research Development Fund (FRDF) grant to complete this two year project.


The Project

'Blood Brain Barrier bioactivity present in the circulation of MS patients'

The aim of this research is to assess the presence of blood brain barrier (BBB) disrupting factors present in the circulation of relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis patients. 

The team has hypothesized that during active disease flair ups; soluble factors (e.g. inflammatory cytokines and other mediators) are elevated in the blood by the disease pathology and directly influence the integrity of the BBB in some patients. 

The initial part of the project involved using a specialized Electric Cell Impedance Sensing (ECIS) technology to assess the barrier-disrupting activity of the patient sera. 

The team will soon start recruiting Auckland MS patients for this study (pending final ethics approval); having also measured a large panel of inflammatory mediators in each of the MS and control sera, aiming to reveal an inflammatory signature present in the serum samples that caused disruption.

This exciting objective is a moving target and will be extended in the group’s larger FRDF funded project.


The Team

Dr Scott Graham

Dr Graham is the Head of the NeuroImmune Interactions Research Group, a team of experts from the University of Auckland and Auckland District Health Board.

His main research focus is on inflammation, which means that his studies always have an aspect of peripheral or neuroinflammation at its core.

Dr Jennifer Pereira

Dr Jennifer Pereira is a neurologist who specialises in the treatment of patients with Multiple Sclerosis. She is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland and a collaborator of the Centre for Brain Research.

Her research is centred on immune therapies for the treatment of MS, because they have the potential to change the outcome of patients.

Dr Simon O’Carroll

Dr O’Carroll is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Brain Research and the Director of the Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCIRF).

His research interests focus on the role of connexins in spinal cord injury, neuroinflammation, neurodegenerative disease and neurogenesis.