MRI power to track MS

(Edmonton) Medical researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered a new way to track the progression of multiple sclerosis by using a powerful, triple-strength MRI to assess increasing levels of iron in brain tissue.

The researchers discovered that iron levels in people living with multiple sclerosis, or MS, are increasing in areas of the brain responsible for relaying messages. High iron levels in a specific “relay area” were noted in patients who had physical disabilities associated with MS. Iron is very important for normal function of the brain, and its regulation is tightly controlled by brain tissue. The U of A discovery suggests there is a problem with the control system. Too much iron can be toxic to brain cells and high levels of iron in the brain have been associated with various neurodegenerative diseases. But to date, no tests have been able to quantify or measure iron in the living brain.

Alan Wilman and Gregg Blevins, co-principal investigators from the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, used a new MRI method to quantitatively measure iron in the brains of people recently diagnosed with MS to better understand the impact of MS on the brain. Twenty-two people with MS took part in the study, along with 22 people who did not have the disease.
“In MS, there is a real desire and need to get a good idea of the state and progression of the disease,” says Blevins, who is both a practising neurologist and a researcher from the Division of Neurology.

“When patients with MS currently get an MRI, the typical measures we look at may not give us a good idea of the nature and state of MS. Using this new MRI method would give physicians a new way to measure the effectiveness of new treatments for patients with MS by watching the impact on iron levels. This opens up the idea of having a new biomarker: a new way of looking at the disease over time, watching the disease, seeing the progression or lack of progression of the disease, a new way to track it.”

Wilman, a researcher and physicist in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, says the new MRI method may be a better gauge for disease progression than looking strictly at the number and frequency of relapses.

“This is a new quantitative marker that gives us more insight into MS…We can get a better handle on where patients are at. In terms of clinical symptoms, they may be fine for quite awhile, then they have a relapse, then they’re fine for quite awhile. Well, the time when they are actually fine, they may not actually be all right. The disease may be progressing, but there is just no marker right now that shows that.

“We think the biomarker we have discovered could be an answer. People in the medical research community are very excited about this discovery, because it could be a new way of looking at the disease.”

The new MRI method uses a machine that is 90,000 times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. It will give physicians more detail and information about the impact of MS on the brain�insight that doctors and researchers haven’t had before.

“This could be a very early marker of MS. We’d like to see this new method used with all patients who have MS. Ultimately, this discovery is a great example of translational research.”

The researchers hope to see the new MRI method used in clinical trials for MS patients within the next year or two. Within five years, they hope it will be used regularly by physicians.

Blevins and Wilman laud the MS patients who took part in the study. “If patients weren’t so willing to help, we couldn’t do any of this,” says Wilman.
The research study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and the Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the University of Alberta Hospital Foundation.