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Doc's discovery may help MS patients

December 22, 2005

By Holly Lake
The Ottawa Sun

A team of Ottawa scientists has become the first to show how the brain's electrical insulation gets damaged.

Myelin, the fatty protective wrap on nerve fibres in the brain, is what's targeted in multiple sclerosis and damaged in patients who've suffered a stroke, spinal cord injury or serious brain injury.

This interferes with electrical signals and leads to blindness and speech impairments.

"Like any wire without its insulation, it will short-circuit and fail," said Dr. Peter Stys, senior scientist at the Ottawa Health research Institute and a neurologist at the Ottawa Hospital.

Until now, how myelin was damaged was a mystery.

Stys and research associate Dr. Ileana Micu suspected it involved calcium but to test their hypothesis they had to invent a technique to measure calcium levels in myelin.

TOO MUCH CALCIUM

That took four years but allowed them to discover myelin is damaged when the NMDA neurotransmitter receptor is activated and allowed to run in excess, allowing too much calcium into the myelin sheet, destroying it.

While it's been known for years that this happened in nerve cells, Stys said they were surprised to discover it's also happening in the nerve fibre. What's important here is that if the receptor can be blocked, the damage can be reduced.

"We hope that by reducing the injury to myelin, the patient's disability will be reduced," Stys said. That may be sooner than many think.

"In this case, it's actually very exciting. Already there is a drug on the market that blocks this receptor for other diseases," he said. "All we have to do is test it in this new set of diseases."

While that's still a process that will take years, Stys noted "That's better than 10 or 20 if you start from scratch."

Given that this was innovative and high-risk, research funding was difficult to secure. Stys credits the community for getting it off the ground.

An annual golf tournament organized by Mel Hartman, the husband of a patient, has raised $100,000 in each of its four years. That money allowed Stys' team to get started and attract the attention of several international funding agencies.

Note: Reproduced with permission from the Ottawa Sun.