Barts-MS rose-tinted-odometer ★★★★★
I am en route to a ‘Pathways to Cures’ meeting in Washington DC hosted by the National MS Society. The aim of the meeting is to refine the ‘Stop, Restore, and End Pathways’ for MS and to develop an international consensus on what an MS cure looks like. I am honoured to be invited to participate in this meeting and would like to thank the NMSS for inviting me.
As always I feel like an imposter; a neurologist who dares to dream about being a public health doctor hoping to someday be in a position to say we have prevented MS, at least in a proportion of people.
Only yesterday I read a very inspiring essay in the New England Journal of Medicine by Sonia Vallabhm who carries a rare genetic disease that at some stage of her life will strike her down and result in her dying of fatal brain disease at a relatively young age. Instead of accepting her fate her and her husband have retrained as scientists to study her disease so as to prevent its consequences.
So many of the messages in her essay resonate with what we are trying to do in MS I, therefore, took a writer’s liberty of paraphrasing her essay from an MS perspective. Apologies about the blatant plagiarism; I hope Sonia and the NEJM will forgive me!
If you have time please read her essay before reading my ‘fictional’ take on her messages. Sonia’s writing skills are clearly superior to mine, but the issues she raises are very clear. If you are at risk of a preventable disease that destroys the brain, why wouldn’t you want to know about being at risk of acquiring the disease in question and why wouldn’t you want to prevent the disease?
Sonia Vallabh. The Patient-Scientist’s Mandate. N Engl J Med 2020; 382:107-109.
Eight years ago, at the age of 24, I learned that I had a 1 in 4 chance of developing multiple sclerosis. In response, I left my fledgeling career in law to retrain in biomedicine. Starting in night classes and entry-level laboratory jobs, I earned a PhD in biomedical research in the spring of 2018. I now have an established research group focused on the prevention of MS.
There is a proud tradition of activated patients driving science. Fellow travellers of this path may be familiar with the kinds of questions I fielded from day one, in particular, whether it was appropriate for patients, or potential patients, to work on their own disease.
My goal is prevention: to preserve at-risk brains, including mine, in full health. MS is a silent disease advancing slowly: the average patient with MS is unemployed 10 years after diagnosis, in a wheelchair by 20 years and has their life expectancy clipped by about 8 years. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no prevention trials. Previous clinical trials targeting so-called prevention have focused on preventing the second clinical attack, i.e. the conversion from clinically-isolated syndrome (CIS) to clinically definite MS (second attack), have generally confirmed the known efficacy of licensed disease-modifying therapies. However, predictive or at-risk testing provides an opportunity, and arguably a mandate, to aim for a higher goal: preservation of brain function and ultimately the full quality of life. This is important as a lot of brain tissue and cognitive reserve is lost prior to the first clinical attack in MS. This is why I want to prevent developing MS.
Because at-risk people have no clinical symptoms testing drugs as a primary prevention strategy based on an MS risk score will require testing drugs in normal people. This realization has defined my priorities for the past 5 years leading me to focus on EBV the likely cause of MS; in particular, EBV vaccination and the treatment of infectious mononucleosis. These treatment targets require a biomarker that can reflect vaccine and drug activity without a definite MS phenotype. My research programme has highlighted many other issues, for example, the need for validated tools for quantifying MS risk in the general population; appropriate recruitment infrastructure (high-risk and population-based registers); defining the presymptomatic natural history of MS; and proactive engagement with funders, public health officials and regulatory agencies. As this list suggests, redefining the aims of drug and vaccine development to encompass MS prevention leads to many new research goals and widens the relevant stakeholders we need to engage with.
In the area of MS prevention, it will take more than a patient-scientist partnership to drive this shift. Perhaps there is something peculiarly clarifying about defining success by honestly answering the question “What would you want for your own brain?”.
My assessment of plausibly relevant approaches was guided by my bottom line: Which approach would face the smoothest path to a first-in-human trial in healthy people at high risk of developing MS?
Guided by practicality, in 2017 we hosted a task-force to develop an MS prevention strategy (see PDF below). The potential for EBV vaccination to prevent MS was endorsed by all participants. Three years on, the building blocks of this program are advancing towards a clinical trial. The progress is slow, very slow, but we will get there.
On the patient side, an emerging task is to rally people who are at risk of developing MS. Currently, very few of those at known risk of developing MS is seeking prevention strategies. Many are counselled against seeking this information because an unlucky result is not actionable at present. I understand this argument, but there’s more to actionability than meets the eye. To succeed in the clinic, we will need to rally supporters behind a counternarrative, one that honours the opportunity that at-risk individuals have to contribute to rewriting the collective future of people with MS. This reframing will not persuade everyone at risk, but it will resonate with some. And, especially when dealing with an uncommon disease, every person matters; every voice matters.
For me, the journey from patient to scientist continues to reaffirm that pursuing at-risk testing was the right choice for me and my family — a decision that continues to empower me in new ways as the years unfold.
I still occasionally encounter the concern that there is a conflict of interest inherent in researching your own potential disease. But far from seeing a conflict of interest, I see an exquisite alignment of interests as I work with mentors and allies toward a trial testing a vaccine and/or drug I hope to take myself, to prevent the disease that threatens my and my families future.