Bid to develop MS treatment to include researchers from Ireland

Teams from Cambridge University and Ireland seek genetic markers for disease

Prof Stephen Sawcer said new gene technology, which was rapid and inexpensive, enabled a new approach in the search for treatments for MS.

Prof Stephen Sawcer said new gene technology, which was rapid and inexpensive, enabled a new approach in the search for treatments for MS.

 

One of the most significant global efforts to develop multiple sclerosis (MS) treatments will see researchers from Ireland and Cambridge University come together to examine thousands of genetic samples.

The collaboration aims to identify “the genetic markers” that can help diagnose, predict disease severity and identify personalised treatments for patients with the chronic disease. Initially its prime focus will be on genetic samples of thousands of people with MS in Ireland and Britain.

One of the most prevalent diseases of the central nervous system, MS directly affects some 9,000 people in Ireland and an estimated 2.5 million people worldwide.

It is the most common disabling neurological disorder among young people – especially aged 20 to 30 – and about 250 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in Ireland. It is a notoriously complex disease of the body’s autoimmune system, especially as it affects people in different ways.

Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI), an Irish life sciences company, has signed a collaboration agreement with Prof Stephen Sawcer, a leading neurologist working on genetic aspects of MS who is based at the University of Cambridge’s Addenbrookes Hospital.

Genetic sequencing

The analysis of an unprecedented number of samples has been made possible due to major advances in gene technology; in particular genetic sequencing – a number of common “genetic variants” influence the risk of MS.

GMI has been undertaking large-scale research studies looking at the relationship between genetics, health and disease. It has been working with the medical community; patients, academic researchers and the global biotech and pharmaceutical sectors, with a view to developing new treatments and better diagnostics across a spectrum of chronic health conditions.

GMI is already undertaking the most comprehensive genomic study of MS to be ever undertaken on the island of Ireland but the agreement enables this to be scaled up, increasingly the possibility of a breakthrough.

Cork University Hospital; St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin; Tallaght University Hospital, Dublin; hospitals in the Western Health and Social Care Trust in Northern Ireland; and the Clinical Translational Research and Innnovation Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry are contributing to this study.

The agreement with Cambridge University is GMI’s first international collaboration and will determine the whole genome sequence, the genetic make-up , from more than 15,000 “biobanked samples” from MS patients in Ireland and those built up by Prof Sawcer in the UK.

Prof Sawcer told The Irish Times that new gene technology, which was rapid and inexpensive, enabled a new approach. He stressed the programme was concentrated on genetics as it was far more likely to translate into effective therapies, because “this is the first time that we have actually had incontrovertible evidence” that a particular “genetic SNP” (portion of DNA) is relevant.

“Prior to that, it was somebody’s best guess, and I cannot emphasise enough just how random that was prior to this work,” Prof Sawcer added. The pharmaceutical industry was fully aware it was far more likely to develop drugs if there was “genetic support” for it, he said.

Dr David Kavanagh, director of GMI’s complex diseases programme, said the collaboration was an attempt “to accelerate the path of fundamental discovery to drugs on the market”.