Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Scientists spot warning signs for multiple sclerosis

The presence of certain levels of a molecule called acrolein in the human body could be an early warning sign for the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers say

New Delhi: The presence of certain levels of a molecule called acrolein in the human body could be an early warning sign for the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS), the incurable and often debilitating disease, researchers say.

Researchers at Purdue University and the Indiana University School of Medicine in the US found that the molecule, previously suspected as a metabolic waste product that accumulates in people with certain neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, could possibly be used to help diagnose MS. Acrolein is a byproduct of fat metabolism.

A potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord, MS usually is diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and affects twice as many women as men. Although there is no cure for MS, recent years have seen a flurry of activity around possible bio-markers and treatments.

“We are in the process of trying to correlate acrolein levels with MS disease activity, which potentially would help us monitor disease activity with a blood test," David Mattson, professor of neurology, and the director of the Indiana University Multiple Sclerosis Centre, said. “If this is validated, it would help us decide how aggressive to be with immunotherapy, or whether a therapy is working or there is a need to switch to a different therapy."

Riyi Shi, a professor of neuroscience and biomedical engineering in Purdue University’s Department of Basic Medical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, has found that an accumulation of the molecule is present in animal models of neurological diseases such as MS, Parkinson’s disease, or even spinal cord and brain injuries.

Acrolein is thought to damage cells by disrupting the lipids, or fats that protect nerve tissue, in a process called lipid peroxidation. Shi said that both blood and urine tests and assays have been able to measure acrolein levels in humans and in animal models.

“The levels of this compound in urine and blood are correlated—the MS patients that had the highest level of acrolein in the blood also had the highest level in the urine," he said. According to Shi, it is, therefore, possible that high level of acrolein is indicative of more active MS, although low levels do not rule out the possibility of someone having MS. Further research is needed to validate these initial observations.

The research has suggested that acrolein is not just a potential bio-marker of MS, but could also be a target for therapies. “There are drugs already in the market that are known to be acrolein scavengers, and it is possible that one of these drugs could be re-purposed as a possible therapy for MS," Shi said.

“But these drugs also have strong effects on other targets, so more study would need to be done to see if they have a therapeutic effect to eliminate acrolein at a safe level." According to the atlas of multiple sclerosis, there are about 2.3 million people in the world who suffer from the disease. It is estimated that the total burden in India is close to 180,000.