Researchers from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the Brigham and Women's Hospital have launched a study to assess individual risk for multiple sclerosis (MS) to ultimately determine if there is a way to predict who will develop the disease.

Introduced in the journal Annals of Neurology, the Genes and Environment in Multiple Sclerosis (GEMS) project involves first-degree family members of patients diagnosed with MS and is set to develop and test interventions to block the disease's onset. According to Dr. Phil De Jager, a co-author of the study, detecting the disease early means administering treatment early, which could hamper disability accumulation.

"Our long-term goal is to map out the sequence of events leading from health to disease, in order to be able to identify and intervene early in individuals at high-risk of MS," he said.

Set to continue for the next 20 years, the GEMS study will ultimately have 5,000 participants, but it now has so far, more than 2,600 first-degree relatives of MS patients. Recruited from all over the U.S., the participants were found through advocacy groups like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, electronic communication and social media. Participants can interact with GEMS researchers via the project's Facebook page.

Upon being enrolled in the study, the participants were tasked to complete a Web-based questionnaire to provide details about their family and medical history, environmental exposures and the like. They were also asked to submit saliva samples to have their DNA extracted.

MS starts years before its symptoms appear so the researchers are not sure how genetic and environmental factors come into play to trigger the disease. By the time a patient seeks medical attention, inflammations in the brain are already underway.

In a preliminary investigation, the researchers tested a method for calculating individual MS risk, identifying a family-member subset that may be at higher risk of developing the disease compared to the average member of the family.

Overall, MS risk is very small for the majority of family members, although first-degree relatives like the participants are 20 to 40 times likelier to develop the disease compared to the general public.

The GEMS study is supported by the NINDS, the NINDS' Intramural Research Program and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Photo: Neil Conway | Flickr

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