Fighting MS in the lab and life
Rachel Curtis reports on the ANU researcher improving treatments for MS sufferers – including himself.
Professor David Tscharke was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at 41, after he noticed some tingling and numbness on the left side of his body.
"I knew something was wrong because I had an odd sensation in my left arm and then some numbness in my left hand and then tingling in my left foot," Professor Tscharke says.
"As a medical researcher, you know there is only one thing that connects the hand and the foot and that is the central nervous system - so that made me worried. I went to my GP and had an MRI."
Professor Tscharke has spent the past 30 years of his career dedicated to understanding virus and immune responses, and he is now tackling MS in the lab and in his life.
At 51, he has been living with the most common form of the disease, relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), for almost a decade. Professor Tscharke has regular treatments and he wants to improve them for everyone.
"I want to help people with MS, like me, make better treatment option choices," Professor Tscharke says.
"Everyone responds to MS medications differently, so I have been looking at devising a method for early identification of response to treatments – both suppression of MS activity, and infection."
RRMS is caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the myelin that insulates nerves to help them
transmit their signals accurately and quickly.
It is characterised by acute episodes of acquiring symptoms – which can greatly vary and are different for everyone – including numbness, being unable to walk or, loss of vision. The symptoms can last for days or months, then they remit and can sometimes go away completely.
Professor Tscharke has been awarded an Incubator Grant from MS Research Australia for a new approach to treatment for RRMS that he's developed.
His novel approach examines the RNA in the blood of people with MS who are being treated with the disease- modifying therapy Cladribine.
"A strength of the project is that we are following a group of people with MS who we are sampling regularly and pairing the results to their clinical condition at the time and data from another project that is ongoing," Professor Tscharke says.
"We can see how things are changing their blood in real time, and then if there is any relationship between that and what the neurologist is seeing.
"We are aiming to understand how this treatment works and identify evidence of early success at a molecular level."
The analysis will also determine whether some infections increase in response to therapy before they cause symptoms, because these can be a problem in the future.