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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 01/02/2012

Is multiple sclerosis really an immune system disease?

Multiple sclerosis has long been understood to be an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system, for reasons poorly understood, responds destructively to antigens in the central nervous system.


A doctor examines a patient with MS. (Washington Post/File)

But research published in December in The Quarterly Review of Biology posits a different way of looking at MS. Angelique Corthals, a forensic anthropologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, suggests that MS may result from problems with the way the body metabolizes lipids, or fats in the blood, which in turn cause inflammation and spark a series of damaging events.

Corthals, in her lengthy review and analysis of existing research, notes that MS shares that underlying mechanism with atherosclerosis. (“Sclerosis” refers to hardening or scarring such as the build-up of plaque in arteries and the development of plaques in the brain associated with MS.)

She concludes that viewing MS in this light helps explain many mysteries that the autoimmune model leaves unanswered, including the role genetics play in MS risk, the environmental elements or pathogens that may trigger disease onset, and the reasons MS strikes twice as many women as men. (Atherosclerosis affects men more commonly than women; Carthals suggests gender differences in lipid metabolism may play a big role in determining who gets which condition.)

Because anti-inflammatory drugs such as statins commonly used to fight cardiovascular disease have also been used to treat symptoms of MS, she writes, such drugs may become part of more comprehensive and effective MS treatments than currently exist.

I contacted the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for a response to the Corthals research, which that organization did not fund. Here’s a shortened version of the MS Society’s prepared statement:

“This paper puts forth a hypothesis about biological activities, and in particular lipids, which may lead to multiple sclerosis. Dr. Corthals’s paper adds to ongoing discussion about what causes MS, but since it is a review of published research, rather than results from original studies, the report carefully notes the need for more research.

The National MS Society welcomes the ideas of thoughtful people who want to end MS, and fully agrees that we need to pursue all promising leads to do so.”

The statement goes on to list related research funded by the MS Society before concluding, “It’s a great sign that so many people from multi-research specialties are focusing efforts to unravel the mysteries that have always surrounded the disease multiple sclerosis.”

I couldn’t agree more. What do you think of this different approach to understanding MS?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 01/02/2012

 
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