Multiple Sclerosis Research Points a Finger at Bacteria

Could a rare bacterium be a missing link in solving the MS mystery? REUTERS

A rare, toxin-spewing bacterium might spur multiple sclerosis, new research suggests.

Scientists from Weill Cornell Medical College and the Rockefeller University have found for the first time a subtype of Clostridium Perfringens, a germ found in soil, in an MS patient. This subtype, found in some grazing animals, degrades cells integral to protecting the nervous system, which causes MS-like symptoms in them. Similar to MS, the cells targeted by this subtype form myelin – a fatty substance that insulates message-transmitting cells in the brain and spinal cord.

The study, published in PLoS ONE, needs to be broadened before a definitive connection between the pathogen and MS can be made, researchers said, but they think it will give insight into how the disease develops and, as such, new treatments.

Why might this bacterium be a missing link in solving the MS mystery?

Before, it was thought that MS began by the body attacking itself, not by mounting an immune response to outside organism, explained Dr. Timothy Vartanian, the study's senior investigator and director of Weill's Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center. This finding, however, has prompted the researchers to think that the MS-causing immune response is actually fomented by this germ.

"We know that there is a necessary environmental trigger for MS to occur," he said. "This might be a necessary first step – infection leading to brain injury."

While the most common form of this bacterium – found in people's digestive tracts – is typically harmless, two types carry a gene which codes for an inactive form of a toxin. When that form makes its way into grazing animals' intestinal tracts, it turns into a poisonous form called epsilon toxin and eventually travels through the blood to the brain, wreaking havoc on blood vessels and nerves along the way.

Previously, one of these epsilon toxin subtypes had only been identified in two people (who were not MS patients). The other had never been detected in humans.

In the course of this research, however, Weill microbiologist Jennifer Linden discovered this previously undetected subtype in an MS patient. And by an analyzing blood and spinal fluid from MS patients and non-MS individuals, the research team also found that levels of antibodies, cells which fight this toxin, were 10 times higher in MS patients. In fact, only one out of every 100 non-MS patient had evidence of an immune response to epsilon toxin according to the study, co-authored by K. Rashid Rumah, an M.D./Ph.D. student at Weill, and Rockefeller's Dr. Vincent Fischetti.

Vartanian hopes that further research into these correlations could lead to "potentially preventing the disease," be it through a vaccine or perhaps even a "probiotic cocktail" to bolster gastrointestinal health.

"We are very excited about this work and what it means for people with MS," he said.