By Elise Stolte, Edmonton JournalSeptember 17, 2010
A surprise discovery by a young researcher at the University of Alberta has opened a new area of research into multiple sclerosis.
PhD student Allison Kraus, 26, was studying the gene calnexin under her supervisor Marek Michalak.
They discovered that when they disabled the gene in mice, the animals had mobility issues -- trouble walking and paralysis in their back legs -- similar to what patients with multiple sclerosis and other related diseases often experience.
Looking closer, they found that silencing the gene had caused the protective sheath, or myelin, around the mouse nerves to deform, which disrupted the nerve signals and caused the mobility issues. Those same deformations are found in humans with multiple sclerosis and other related diseases.
"It was actually a very exciting finding," said Michalak. "This really was from curiosity-driven research. It would not have been predictable.
"This is an example of taking risks and winning."
The U of A researchers are still far from finding new treatments for MS, but they are closer to understanding what might cause the disease, said Michalak. The lab's next step will be to take nerve samples from human subjects and confirm that the deformities found in the lab mice and humans are the same. If that is the case, this would be a big discovery that would change how scientists think about MS, he said.
The root cause of MS is still unknown, although scientists expect genetics, environmental conditions and viruses may all be involved, said Neil Pierce, president of the Alberta division of the MS society.
Most neurologists believe MS symptoms are caused when the immune system destroys the myelin sheath surrounding the neuron part of the nerve.
Recently, a new theory by Italian researcher Dr. Paolo Zamboni gained international attention. He said the symptoms are caused by constricted veins leading to a buildup of iron in the brain, and gives patients "liberation treatment" to unblock those veins.
Kraus decided to study the gene for her PhD before any link to MS was suspected and said she's only a spectator in the Zamboni controversy.
Kraus is the daughter of a bank teller and a sporting goods salesman, was born in Regina and first came to Edmonton for her undergraduate degree in 2001.
Now she plays on an intramural hockey team, the Biochemical Disasters, for fun and spends most of her working time in a crowded third-floor lab. She hopes to defend her thesis next summer and continue research as a career.
"It's exciting, when you work in a lab it's exciting," she said.
She has friends and a close relative with multiple sclerosis and the possibility that this research could help those with the disease adds significance. "MS is a difficult disease because it's so life altering. To watch people lose their mobility is always difficult."
The research was funded by about $200,000 in annual grants from Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Alberta Innovates and the MS Society.
Julie Kelndorfer, a 35-year-old with MS, was also at Thursday's announcement. Her seven-year-old son, Joshua, made it his New Year's resolution last year to do better on the walk for MS.
His team raised $15,000 to "find a cure for mommy," she said. Now she can point to how that hard work is helping.
"This was out of the blue, that's what I love about this discovery," she said. "Josh's little contribution helped. His funding made a difference."