Driven by our need to better understand and treat this disorder, Prof. Bénédicte Dubois and I started an MS research group at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL). While Bénédicte travelled to London for clinical specialisation in MS, I worked for two years with Prof. Alastair Compston in Cambridge to find out more about the research we intended to undertake in this area. Although MS is not an inherited condition, genes do play a part in an individual’s susceptibility, as in the case of obesity and diabetes. The disease is the result of the interplay of many genetic and environmental factors which need to be investigated in order to better understand the disease mechanisms. Back in Leuven, we built up our laboratory and its first team.
At first, we had to share space with another research team, but were fully independent by 2010.
All that we lacked was the equipment to expand our research. I applied to the Charcot Foundation, my application was successful, and in January 2011 I received the subsidies from Dr. Richard Gonsette.
With these funds, we were able to purchase the necessary equipment: a DNA measurement unit and another for the proteins which make up our bodies using DNA as a template. At this point, our research was fully under way. We decided to concentrate on one component of the immune system which plays a major part in MS but had been somewhat neglected: the B cells. The B cells are responsible for producing antibodies which can be detected in MS patients by a lumbar puncture. In some patients, the B cells produce high levels of antibodies, while in others the antibody levels are not higher than in healthy individuals; a noteworthy fact which pointed to different mechanisms involved in different patients. To find out the reason, we needed many blood samples from MS patients. Besides the patients at University Hospitals Leuven and the National MS Center in Melsbroek, we received samples from patients in other countries, from Italy to Norway, so that ultimately we were able to investigate the genetic material from a total of 6950 MS patients.
This enabled us to identify four areas of the genome which largely determined the difference in antibody levels between MS patients. These findings were shared with the rest of the research community in the March 2015 issue of the leading neurology journal Brain. On the basis of these results, we decided to continue our research on the B cells, hypothesizing they might also play an important part in the treatment of MS. With further support from the Charcot Foundation (2015), which continued in its mission to support scientific research on MS after the death of Dr. Gonsette, we were able to do this. However, it is essential not to forget that MS is also a neurological disorder in which the immune system, including the antibodies, attacks the myelin sheath around the nerves. In the course of a third project funded by the Charcot Foundation (2013), we focused on the fact that in some people the myelin sheath is far more sensitive to attacks by the immune system than in others. Once more, genetic variations between individuals appear to be the key. The results of these projects convinced other funding agencies such as the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO-Vlaanderen) to invest further in this research.
May I take this opportunity to thank the Charcot Foundation and its founder Dr. Gonsette for enabling us to start up and continue our research into the role played by genetic factors in MS, and the importance of this information in the choice of clinical care and treatment.
Prof. An Goris, Senior Lecturer
Laboratory for Neuroimmunology, KU Leuven