Biomedical research project run by Dr Anne Astier

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More than 100,000 people in the UK have multiple sclerosis – the most common neurological condition in young adults. In MS, the body’s immune system damages the myelin sheath surrounding and protecting nerve fibres. This interferes with messages travelling from the brain and spinal cord to other parts of the body.

Symptoms are different for everyone, and range from being unable to walk to loss of bladder control and commonly, debilitating fatigue. MS can affect every part of the body and be extremely painful. Symptoms usually strike in a person’s 20s or 30s without warning, although in rare cases children can develop MS too. At its worst the disease progresses rapidly, stripping away independence.

Dr Anne Astier at the UK’s leading MS research conference, organised by MS Society, in June 2017.

Dr Anne Astier at the UK’s leading MS research conference, organised by MS Society, in June 2017.

The Pixel Fund is generously helping to fund a research project that will help us understand more about the condition. The project is being run by Dr Anne Astier at the University of Edinburgh, who is investigating how immune cells move into the brain and spinal cord, and whether vitamin D is involved in controlling that movement.

In MS, immune cells move across the blood-brain-barrier into the brain and spinal cord and attack the protective myelin coating that surrounds nerve fibres. We don’t fully understand how or why that migration happens.

Dr Astier wants to find out if T cells (one type of immune cell) migrate because they’ve been activated by a molecule called CD46. She also wants to find out whether vitamin D plays any role in controlling that migration. The team will be looking at T cells that have been activated by CD46, and searching for molecules on the surface that are known to control migration into the brain and spinal cord. This will provide them with evidence about whether CD46 activates T cell migration.

They’ll then take T cells from blood donated by people with and without MS, and compare the ability of the cells to move across a model blood-brain-barrier made in the lab, to look for differences. They’ll also be looking at whether adding vitamin D to the cell environment has any influence on the migration.

How will it help people with MS? Several disease modifying drugs can reduce the movement of immune cells into the brain and spinal cord, but they can come with the risk of side effects. This work will help us to understand more about how and why immune cells migrate, so that more effective treatments targeting this mechanism can be developed. This work could also provide further information on how vitamin D is involved in MS. Finding out whether vitamin D can regulate the migration of T cells could highlight whether vitamin D could be used to help treat MS.

On behalf of Multiple Sclerosis Society