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Scientists Continue Their Search for Better Treatments for Multiple Sclerosis – and a Cure

FAITH LAPIDUS: This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: And I’m Christopher Cruise. Today, we tell about the disease multiple sclerosis.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Multiple sclerosis is neither easy to say nor easy to live with. Those who have multiple sclerosis often say they live with it, instead of saying they suffer from it. American officials estimate that about four hundred thousand people in the United States have multiple sclerosis. Worldwide, more than two million people are thought to have the disease, which often is called “MS.”

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Multiple sclerosis is different from many other diseases. The signs of MS are not the same in all people who have it. These symptoms may appear and then disappear for a long time. Some people who have MS do not show many symptoms of the disease at all. Their friends may not even know they have it.

But there are many symptoms. They include reduced or lost ability to move the arms and legs, and loss of feeling in one body part or another. People with MS may have muscle weakness or low energy levels. Other signs include loss of balance or eyesight, a lack of sensation and losing the ability to speak clearly. Experts say these problems could results from disorders other than MS.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The progress, severity and symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted. But researchers are working on being able to do so.

Timothy Coetzee is the Chief Research Officer for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has been studying MS since nineteen ninety-three. He told VOA that there has been progress in MS research since he began working on finding a cure.

TIMOTHY COETZEE: “When I moved into the MS community, there was one approved therapy. Today, there are eight approved therapies that are making a difference in the lives of people with MS.”

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. The nervous system is the main target of the disease. In effect, MS involves the body’s own natural defenses attacking the nervous system. The cause of MS is not known, although scientists have some theories about the cause. Most forms of MS are described as progressive. This means the disease gets worse as time passes.

In MS patients, a fatty substance covering the nerves – called myelin – is destroyed. This blocks the flow of information within the brain. It can also stop the flow between the brain and the rest of the body. In most people, electric signals pass from the nerves to the muscles and back to the brain. But this does not always happen in people with MS.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The central nervous system has millions of nerve cells. They are joined by long, thin nerve fibers, called “axons.” In people with the disease, these axons are cut or destroyed.

Electric signals start in nerve cells and travel along these axons to and from the brain. The myelin protects the fibers. Myelin works like protective coverings work on electric wires. It also provides nutrients and support to the axons.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: In people with MS, the myelin is infected or damaged. Sometimes this damage is healed naturally by the body. If not, it grows larger, and the myelin loses its connection with the nerve fibers. As time passes, the myelin is destroyed. Hardened scar tissue then forms over the nerve fibers. This hardening process is called sclerosis. The word comes from the Latin language. It means “scar.” The many, or multiple, areas of hardened or scar tissue give the disease its name.

In MS patients, when nerve signals reach a damaged area, some signals are blocked or delayed as they travel to or from the brain. This results in problems in different parts of the body. These problems may appear and then disappear. Sometimes there are long periods of time when there are no problems at all. Or, they may happen more often and become worse. Doctors do not know what causes this process.

FAITH LAPIDUS: MS affects women at least two times as often as men. The average age of people diagnosed with – or found to have the disease – is between twenty and fifty years old.

Thirty-five year old Amy Jo Rowell has MS. She had planned to be a teacher before doctors announced she had MS four years ago. She says she had signs of the disease at least six years before that.

AMY JO ROWELL: “My coordination was quite incompatible with what I had intended my body to do. I was having a hard time navigating through doorways. I would see the doorway, I would know what I needed to do, but, more often than not, I would graze the side of the doorway and my shoulders were becoming bruised. When I would be brushing my teeth I would miss my mouth, or if I’d be eating I would, I would miss with my fork, and had a lot of weakness, especially in my right arm, was tripping quite a bit.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: Still, only her friends and family know that Amy Jo Rowell has MS. Ms. Rowell lives in Wisconsin. She operates an animal shelter. People who come to the shelter do not know she has MS. They cannot tell by looking at her.

Ms. Rowell told VOA her symptoms were not noteworthy by themselves. But, she says, when she put all the pieces together, it was clear that she had the disease.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: As we have noted, no one knows what causes MS. For years, doctors believed where a person lived or travelled might influence development of the disease. Now, studies support the theory that it is not just the environment but a person’s genes and even viruses that may influence whether a person will develop MS. The disease may affect one or more family members. A cousin of Ms. Rowell’s mother had it.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Researchers have yet to identify which virus or viruses might cause MS. Many believe there may be events known as triggers that take place when a person’s natural defenses misunderstand signals and attack the body.

Dr. Coetzee says researchers are studying several hundred drugs that could help people with MS. He says some of the drugs could protect the brain from damage. One day, he says, damaged nerves may be rebuilt, and existing damage repaired.

TIMOTHY COETZEE: “I’m quite optimistic that in the next five years we’ll start to see a whole next generation of therapies that both will be restorative, protective and that will stop disease progression.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: One study showed that women who get plenty of Vitamin D during pregnancy may be protecting their babies from developing MS later in life. Vitamin D is found in fortified milk and fatty fish like salmon. The human body also produces the vitamin after contact between the skin and sunlight.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Doctors who suspect someone has MS must perform tests and study the patient’s history of health problems. MS symptoms can depend on where the nerve scars are in the central nervous system. And some of these signs are not always easy to see.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging – or MRI – is one way to tell if someone has multiple sclerosis. The test involves studying the magnetic signals from tissues in the brain or spinal cord. An MRI can show if there are scars from MS along a patient’s nerves, or there is disease activity. A doctor can use this test as one way to tell if the person might have the disease.

FAITH LAPIDUS: As we have seen, there is no cure for MS, but scientists are developing a better understanding of it. This is leading to better treatments and a better quality of life for those who live with the disease.

Amy Jo Rowell says she takes medicines daily, takes good care of herself and asks for help when she needs it. She changes her activities, listens to her body and slows down when she needs to. But most of the time she says, she just keeps moving.

AMY JO ROWELL: “Despite a diagnosis of something, whether it’s MS or, or any other ailment that it could be, uh, an indicator to somebody that they don’t have to give up their dreams. There was a period of time that I thought that I might have to stop working. And I’m really glad that I, I didn’t listen to that inner fear, and that I just kept going.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: Ms. Rowell says she feels empowered by small improvements in her health and in MS research. She says she has strong support from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and, most importantly, from her family.


CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: The National Multiple Sclerosis Society provides financial support for research on the disease. The Society has created a website that tells about progress in the fight against MS. The website has the latest news on research and treatment that can change and improve the lives of people living with MS. And it has information about help available to patients, their families and doctors.

The Multiple Sclerosis International Federation has created a website where you can learn about the disease in at least fifteen languages. On that website, you can learn about services available for MS sufferers in many countries. We have placed links to those websites on our website - VOA Special English dot com.


FAITH LAPIDUS: This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Christopher Cruise. Our producer was June Simms. I’m Faith Lapidus.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: And I’m Christopher Cruise. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.