Southampton University medical researchers have made a discovery in their search for genetic clues to multiple sclerosis. The disease affects around 80,000 people in the United Kingdom and two million worldwide. It is twice as common in women as men, and the usual age of onset is mid to late 20s.
Its cause is unknown, and as yet there is no effective cure. In about a fifth of cases, a second member of the family is also affected This suggests that genetic susceptibility plays a part and various research groups are investigating different genes in a bid to discover which might be contributing to this.
MS destroys myelin, a nerve film in the central nervous system which allows electrical impulses to be conducted rapidly round the brain and spinal cord. The destruction of this myelin insulation leads to delayed conduction and disability.
The Southampton research team has been examining the genes responsible for producing the myelin membrane. "We have already made the exciting discovery that myelin contains 'rho' proteins," said Rod Thompson of the clinical biochemistry group.
"These act as molecular switches, transmitting signals involved in the formation and movement of membranes in various types of cells, and are likely to be key molecules in the myelin membrane."
The project has won three-year funding of Pounds 186,000 from the Multiple Sclerosis Society.