The role of vitamin D related
genes in MS
Early in 2016 Dr Lawrence Ong was awarded a prestigious Betty Cuthbert Postgraduate Scholarship co-funded by National Health and Medical Research Council / MS Research Australia, with MS Research Australia’s contribution provided with full funding support from the Trish MS Research Foundation.
Low blood levels of Vitamin D are known to be associated with the risk of developing MS. We also know that several MS risk genes are involved in the biological processing of Vitamin D. Vitamin D3 levels appear to predict clinical activity of multiple sclerosis. The reasons for this are unclear, but may be linked to the effect vitamin D has on the activity of immune cells. The docking station, or receptor for vitamin D is found in a subset of immune cell genes allowing vitamin D to change the activity of these genes.
Dr Ong’s PhD set out to discover more detail on how the Vitamin D Receptor (VDR) can change immune cell function in MS. Specifically, he has been using specific gene sequencing technologies to better understand the function of key MS risk genes which are regulated by the Vitamin D receptor. Dr Ong will first study the relationship between Vitamin D receptor activity and the growth and development of a particular type of messenger immune cells called dendritic cells.
In the first year of his PhD, Dr Ong has made progress in optimising the state-of-the-art gene sequencing technologies that he needs to use for the successful completion of the project. He is currently looking at the genetic material taken from specific immune cell populations in people with MS. In particular he has been isolating one particular cell type that has been implicated in MS called CD34. The number of CD34 immune cells in each individual is low, which means he is only able to isolate a small amount of DNA from this cell subset and this requires very particular techniques to study the activity of genes in these cells.
As an advanced clinical Immunology trainee Dr Ong’s medical expertise together with the research training that he is receiving through this Scholarship in MS research will provide insight into the genetic regulation of immune function in MS. We look forward to hearing of his discoveries over the coming years. This work may ultimately help to identify the molecular pathways that contribute to the development of MS and open up potential new treatment strategies.