A study has shown promise in developing a vaccine for multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic neurodegenerative disease caused when the body creates an immune response that attacks the protective lining around its nerves. MS affects roughly 2.3 million individuals worldwide, and about 400,000 people in America. Only estimates can be provided as the U.S. government does not consistently track and monitor MS and is not required to do so. Regarding the study, Dr. Giovanni Ristori, of Sapienza University in Rome states “these results are promising, but much more research needs to be done to learn more about the safety and long-term effects of this live vaccine.”

The Study

Participants were individuals that developed early signs and symptoms of MS, including numbness, vision problems, and problems with balance. 33 individuals were given a vaccine, while another 40 were given a placebo. After five years, 30% of those who received the placebo had not developed MS, compared with 58% of those vaccinated. After the first six months, those who received the vaccine had fewer brain lesions than those who got the placebo, with an average of three lesions for the vaccinated versus seven for the unvaccinated. There were also fewer brain lesions after 5 years in the vaccine group. The small but potentially impactful study was developed around the theory that exposure to infections early in life might reduce the risk of diseases such as MS by stimulating the body’s immune system.

Some have considered the possibility that MS and other autoimmune diseases could be increasing in prevalence due to a lack of exposure to a variety of infections early in life, thus preventing the body’s immune system from developing fully. Using a live vaccine is not harmful to people but it allows the body to develop the ability to fight infections. The vaccine used this the MS study, called Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG), is currently used for tuberculosis. “Benign exposures to microbes help prevent autoimmune diseases and allergies,” suggests Dr. Ristori. The BCG vaccine has a 90-year history of being safe to use and showing results better than the standard of care. Interestingly, BCG is one of the oldest vaccines, its development 90 years ago was a direct outgrowth of Robert Koch’s Nobel Prize-winning work on TB.

Implications of Vaccine

Dr. Dennis Bourdette, of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, said the research suggested “BCG could prove to be a ‘safe, inexpensive, and handy’ treatment for MS”. Utilizing a vaccine could be a much safer and more affordable treatment options. In a world where treatment can cost in excess of $70,000 annually, the thought of a vaccine is a hopeful expectation for MS patients. Drug analysts are expecting between a 4% and 8% increase in MS drug prices in 2017. This study holds a great deal of potential for a disease that so little is known about. There is no known cause for MS and there is no cure for MS. Interestingly, it appears that MS affects females more than males and people who live further from the equator. Treatment plans generally seek to slow the progression of the disease and to help individuals manage their symptoms.

Next Steps

This study supports the “hygiene hypothesis” that small exposures to certain infections early in life help to reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases later in life. Dr. Susan Kohlhaas, head of biomedical research at the MS Society said, “It’s really encouraging to see positive results from this small trial, but they’ll need validating in larger and longer-term studies before we know if the BCG vaccination can reduce the risk of someone developing MS.” Some argue that 5 years is a long time but the sample size of the group in the study was relatively small. Next researchers will have to duplicate the findings with a larger study. Researchers will have to determine what an effective dose of the vaccine is and how long the vaccine will last.

MS is such a fascinating disease and really, so little is known about it. This study sheds light on the mysterious disease. Hopefully, further research will build upon these findings and find a vaccine that will slow the progression of MS. Individuals with MS remain hopeful and the scientific community continues to advance in its knowledge and understanding of MS.