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research has just been published looking at the role of microRNAs or ‘genetic
switches’ in secondary progressive MS. microRNAs are tiny pieces of genetic
material found in cells which for a long time were not thought to have any
biological function. It turns out that microRNAs are able to turn particular
genes on and off in different parts of the body. This genetic control system
helps to dictate the cell’s behaviour, determines what type of cell they
are, how they grow, and how they respond to the environment around them.
are increasingly becoming interested in the potential role of microRNAs in
diseases such as MS. However, identifying these genetic switches and linking
them to the genes they affect is not a trivial task. It requires enormously
complex experiments with precious tissue samples donated by people with MS, and
then a vast amount of computing power to sequence, analyse and interpret the
scholar, Katherine Sanders and her colleagues at Bond University, Queensland
and the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Newcastle, NSW, have done exactly
that. They have compared the microRNA profiles in a specific type of immune
cell in the blood of people with secondary progressive MS and compared this
profile to people who do not have MS. These immune cells, known as CD4+ cells,
are the ones thought to initiate an immune response leading to the loss of
myelin and consequently the corresponding symptoms of MS.
in the journal Clinical Epigenetics, the team identified ten microRNAs which
were present at lower levels in secondary progressive MS, five of which were
confirmed using multiple laboratory methods. The researchers think these miRNAs
are likely to have a combined effect on a few specific genes.
complex computer algorithms, the researchers looked into which genes the
microRNAs should control and found that the majority are switches for an immune
gene called SOCS6. They showed that in the blood of people with secondary
progressive MS, the SOCS6 gene was not being totally switched off as expected.
This is in line with other research that has shown that the SOCS6 gene is more
active in areas of the brain affected by MS.
research is important since it shows that while the CD4+ immune cells are
thought to be a driving force behind the earlier stages of MS, where
inflammation is key, these cells do not seem to be playing a large role in
secondary progressive MS. Uncovering the processes at work in progressive
stages of MS is vital to identify new ways to treat progressive forms of the
Katherine Sanders was awarded a MS Research Australia Postgraduate Scholarship
in 2014 for this research project, funded by the Trish MS Research Foundation.