Multiple sclerosis, long viewed as an autoimmune disease, may in fact be a metabolic disorder, according to Assistant Professor Angelique Corthals of the Department of Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose findings appear in the December 2011 issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology.
In Corthals’ article, “Multiple Sclerosis Not a Disease of the Immune System”, the forensic anthropologist, suggests that MS is caused by faulty lipid metabolism, in many ways more similar to coronary atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Framing MS as a metabolic disorder helps to explain many puzzling aspects of the disease, particularly why it strikes women more than men and why cases are on the rise worldwide, Corthals says. She believes this new framework could help guide researchers toward new treatments and ultimately lead to a cure for the dreaded disease.
Multiple sclerosis affects at least 1.3 million people worldwide. Its main characteristic is inflammation followed by scarring of tissue called myelin, which insulates nerve tissue in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, this scarring can lead to profound neurological damage. Medical researchers have theorized that a runaway immune system is at fault, but no one has been able to fully explain what triggers the onset of the disease. Genes, diet, pathogens and vitamin D deficiency have all been linked to MS, but evidence for these risk factors is inconsistent and even contradictory in some populations, frustrating researchers in their search for effective treatment.
“Each time a genetic risk factor has shows a significant increase in MS in one population, it has been found to be unimportant in another,” Corthals said. “Pathogens like Epstein-Barr virus have been implicated, but there’s no explanation for why genetically similar populations with similar pathogen loads have drastically different rates of disease. The search for MS triggers in the context of autoimmunity simply hasn’t led to any unifying conclusions about the etiology of the disease.”
However, understanding the nature of MS as metabolic rather than autoimmune begins to bring the disease and its causes into focus.
“When lipid metabolism fails in the arteries, you get atherosclerosis,” Corthals explains. “When it happens in the central nervous system, you get MS. But the underlying etiology is the same.” The body is “primed” for the disease which is triggered by a pathogen or trauma or any event causing inflammation.
Corthals hopes that this new understanding of the disease could eventually lead to new treatments and prevention measures.
“This new framework makes a cure for MS closer than ever,” she said.
Professor Angelique Corthals is a biological/forensic anthropologist. She earned her DPhil (PhD) at the University of Oxford and has over ten years of scientific research and teaching experience in the fields of pathology, forensic, biomedical and physical anthropology, phylogenetics and evolutionary biology, genetic resources and epidemiology.
The Quarterly Review of Biology, or QRB, is a scientific review of current and historical topics in biology as well as a source of book reviews. It was begun in 1926 by Raymond Pearl. It is currently published by the University of Chicago Press.
About John Jay College of Criminal Justice: An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu.
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