Advancing the fight against MS

Advancing the fight against MS

With unparalleled research efforts underway, Canadian scientists redraw the battle lines in the fight against "Canada's disease"
July 2, 2008
At first you think it’s just stress—dizziness, difficulty concentrating, occasional pins and needles in your limbs, and even the odd bout of exhaustion and blurry vision. After all, you reason, what young parent trying to balance conflicting work, family, and social demands wouldn’t experience these things from time to time?  Yet when a colleague asks one day why you’re having trouble walking, you realize it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor.

The devastating diagnosis catches you completely off guard—it appears that your symptoms are not caused by stress, but by the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS). And what’s worse, you are only one of 75,000 sufferers in Canada.

With stats like that, there’s little wonder why MS—a chronic, unpredictable, and potentially debilitating disease of the central nervous system—is considered by many to be “Canada’s disease.” In fact, Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world.

Why Canada possesses such a high incidence of multiple sclerosis largely remains a mystery. Yet some good has come of this cruel trend: Canadian researchers have responded by forging one of the most intense and extensive MS research networks in the world.

“MS researchers around the world recognize the strength of this unique phenomenon in Canada and the resulting strength of MS research in Canada,” says Jon Temme, Vice-President of Research with the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.

V. Wee Yong
V. Wee Yong

Canada’s unprecedented MS research network has played no small role in leading the charge. The MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) community in Canada was one of the first to show detailed images of MS lesion activity in the brains of sufferers. This breakthrough has not only allowed doctors to diagnose MS earlier and with a greater degree of certainty, it has also revealed that MS is much more common than previously thought, and that its incidence is on the rise. Canada also leads the world in using bone marrow transplants in slowing and attempting to reverse the progression of MS in those with advanced symptoms.

With so many multifaceted advances in the works , Dr. Wee Yong, one of Canada’s leading MS researchers, couldn’t be more energized. “This is truly an exciting time in MS research,” says Yong, chair of the medical advisory board of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and a neuroscientist at the University of Calgary. “There have never been so many rays of hope for people with multiple sclerosis.”

One of the most promising lines of research in the treatment of MS is being pioneered by Yong and his clinical colleague, Dr. Luanne Metz, through the MS Program of the university’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute. They are exploring why minocycline, a common acne medication, appears to reduce the number and size of lesions caused by MS. The 50-year-old acne fix is now entering the last stage of testing before Health Canada approval for MS treatment.

“As MS is a disease of chronic neurological inflammation, we had been interested in medications that control inflammatory responses of the immune system,” explains Yong. “What’s more, we had been looking for commonly available medications that could be fast-tracked into MS applications.”

Minocycline fits the bill on both accounts. Not only does it appear to have an anti-inflammatory effect useful in fighting MS, which concerns inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, it’s also readily available in pill form. All current MS medications must be injected, so minocycline could prove groundbreaking in making MS treatments more convenient and less painful. Running at about $800 a year for individual treatment, minocycline is also remarkably cheaper than other MS medications, which can cost over $30,000 annually.


“There is no doubt that we have come a long way in providing more effective MS immuno-modulators like minocycline,” says Yong, whose passion for bringing research from the “bench to the bedside” garnered him the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Year Medallion in 2003 for his work on behalf of the MS Society of Canada.

“And we are getting better and better every day. I think we are very close to the stage where we can realistically begin to think about the potential of repairing some of the damages wrought by MS.”

Little more than a decade ago, there were no known therapies to help change the progression of what is still an incurable and mysterious disease (the initial trigger of MS remains unknown). Today, there are multiple new MS therapies being studied around the world.

With so many frontline advances being pursued in the fight against MS—new medications, new uses for old ones, better drug combinations, and the promise of actual neuron repair on the horizon—Yong is confident that researchers in Canada, and around the world, are making real inroads against MS.

“No one knows what the future holds, but for MS patients, tomorrow has never looked brighter than it does today.”

May is MS Awareness Month in Canada.