Italy is one of the most important country concerning the research on multiple sclerosis and the latest news about it come from the recent annual ACTRIMS-ECTRIMS meeting in Boston. A collaborative group led by Massimiliano Calabrese from the University of Verona was amongst the 20 funded projects across the world from the first announcement of Progressive MS Alliance – an international alliance of associations on MS, formed to accelerate the development of new treatments for this disease – that has provided 30 million dollars. This project will be carried out through the collaboration between Roberta Magliozzi from Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) of Rome, Massimiliano Calabrese and Salvatore Monaco, from University of Verona, Richard Reynolds from the Imperial College London and Owain Howell of the University of Swansea (Wales).
"To understand the importance of our project,” says Roberta Magliozzi “we have to understand the mechanism by which the disease develops." Multiple sclerosis usually comprises two phases: a first phase, relapsing-remitting, in which first inflammatory attacks appear and slowly compromise the nervous system. Attack after attack, the situation begin to crystallize, the neurological damage became more and more severe and the patient gets into the second progressive phase for which no efficient therapies are available at the moment. “Our project just fits in the gap between these two phases,” explains Magliozzi. “We want to identify early diagnostic biomarkers of the progressive phase of the disease in order to block as soon as possible those attacks that lead to permanent neurological disability."
Not certainly a simple kind of research, which requires an international collaboration between research centres of excellence. One of the main trait d'union is Magliozzi itself, who has spent her PhD at the Imperial College in London, analysing the relationship between meningeal inflammation and cortical grey matter lesions in progressive MS. Since she returned to Italy to join the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Istituto Superiore di Sanità, she continued to study the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in MS cortical pathology. Meanwhile, a team of neurologists from the University of Verona was doing some experiments on live patients. These studies using MRI have allowed researchers to understand that all patients that had showed lesions in the cortical grey matter also showed a more severe course of the disease. "When we realize that the results obtained in the laboratories of London, Rome and those taken in Verona were similar, we began to coordinate our studies,” says Magliozzi “and we decided to propose a collaboration. With this collaboration, the project was born and was then selected among the top 20 from MS Alliance to be funded."
“For this first year we obtained a loan of 70,000 euro,” Magliozzi specifies. “If after this first year the prospects will show promising results, we will proceed with the second part of the loan, which amounts to 500 thousand euro, shared by four research groups.” This amount will cover all the costs of the research and scholarships for young researchers working both in London and in Rome.
In particular, while in England researchers will test post-mortem brains, collected and available for research use at the UK MS Tissue Bank of Imperial College London, in Rome at Istituto Superiore di Sanità, in collaboration with Francesco Facchiano, a detailed proteomic analysis of the liquor collected by the MS patients recruited in Verona will be performed. In Verona, these MS patients will be followed, and their lesion load and clinical follow-up will be performed by using new advanced magnetic resonance imaging technologies, able to precisely reveal cortical lesions and atrophy.
In a project like this, however, the winners are not the researchers, but the patients; those who were in Boston with the hope of seeing quick results before it is too late for them. "The thing that struck me in Boston,” Magliozzi concludes “is that you realize how much of what for us is a goal to reach, is actually what makes difference for these people's life and for the life of their children. Many of the persons who have supported our project were together with us in Boston, and all of them may enter into a disability stage in less than five years. This is the reason why it is a deadline that we will try at all costs to follow."