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'A light at the end of the tunnel'

April 12, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Jennifer "J.J." Bain was in her prime when the debilitating disease began attacking her central nervous system.

At 32, the vision problems started. Pain and numbness in her wrist and forearm followed. Then came the urinary tract infections. The symptoms sometimes abated, but they always returned. And Bain sought an answer that took more than four years to find.

She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989. Until then, Bain said, "Nobody ever mentioned MS to me. ... But what good would it have done to put a label on it? At the time I was diagnosed, there was nothing they could do but treat the symptoms."

Symptoms of MS, including abnormal fatigue, vision problems, loss of balance and muscle coordination, slurred speech, tremors, bladder problems, numbness and depression, are unpredictable and vary from person to person and from time to time in the same person, according to information from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at www.nationalmssociety.org on the Web.

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"You could know a dozen people with MS and we could all have different symptoms," said Bain, 51, of Keedysville.

Thought to be an autoimmune disease - in which the body attacks its own tissue, MS damages the fatty tissue called myelin that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. Myelin also helps the nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain, and disruption of this critical job produces the various symptoms of MS, according to the National MS Society.

The cause of MS is unknown, but scientists believe such factors as genetics and gender play a role. There is no cure.

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is now the preferred method of imaging to help establish a diagnosis of MS. The MRI shows the scar tissue left when myelin is destroyed.

Drugs now prescribed to slow the disease's progress - including Avonex, Betaseron, Copaxone, Novantrone and Rebif - weren't available when Bain was diagnosed. Her MS continued, off and on, to affect her vision, balance, bladder function and memory recall. Today, Bain uses a cane and a scooter for longer hauls.

"There's only so many walls you can hold on to," she said.

She takes Copaxone to help keep the disease in check, and though she can't be sure it's working, she likes to believe it is.

"I'm not willing to stop taking it to find out," Bain said.

She's encouraged by the cutting-edge research now under way to find the cause of, and a cure for, MS.

The National MS Society recently committed more than $12 million - much of it raised through fund-raisers such as the upcoming Washington County Multiple Sclerosis Walk - to 23 research projects and four new collaborative research centers. The Society has invested nearly $420 million since its founding to support basic and clinical research aimed at finding a cure for the disease, according to information on the organization's Web site.

Research also is focusing on developing medications and rehabilitation programs to combat the symptoms of MS, including a study to help scientists identify more precisely how working memory may be impaired in people who have MS.

Scientific evidence indicates that many separately inherited genes contribute to MS susceptibility - making the search for the genes more complex - but top-notch geneticists are working together to accelerate this research. Dr. David A. Hafler and his team at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Massachusetts, for example, are using a new technique called "admixture mapping" to identify the genes, according to the National MS Society. The process involves studying the genetic basis of MS in populations with mixed racial ancestry.

Other researchers are searching for evidence that a virus or microbe triggers the body's immune system to attack its own tissue. Still more investigators are working to decipher molecular signals that are sent to sites of injury, including damaged myelin, to recruit cells to repair that damage. Scientists hope to find ways to mimic these signals - and repair MS damage to myelin and nerve fibers. The National MS Society is dedicating nearly $20 million to his cornerstone of MS research, the Web site states.

"I see a light at the end of the tunnel," Bain said, "but I don't know if it's a light that's going to help me or the people who aren't yet diagnosed with MS."

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