Case Western, GSK find promise with MS diagnostic 'probe'

Multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease that progressively damages the nervous system, is profoundly difficult to diagnose. Scientists at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, with colleagues at GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Imperial College London in the U.K., believe they've discovered a way to circumvent that challenge.

Their solution: an injectable molecular probe that works with a PET scan to illuminate myelin damage in the spinal cord--a common result of MS. The Annals of Neurology published their preclinical research.

The team's creation could help enhance the treatment of MS patients in a number of ways. Beyond identifying myelin damage that is a sign of the disease, the substance could also be useful in monitoring the effect of drugs developed to both modify symptoms and restore nerve function, the researchers believe. Right now, researchers rely more on physical symptoms, behavioral testing and MRI scans to make their diagnosis. But the researchers note that MRI scans of the brain and spinal cord aren't myelin-specific (though they do detect lesions).

In other words, clinicians can't use MRI scans to reliably track MS progression. Better imaging of spinal myelin damage is key toward offering better diagnosis and treatment of MS. (Myelin is a substance that protects and insulates nerves.)

The laboratory of Yanming Wang, the study's senior author and an associate professor of radiology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, developed the probe. Wang said the accomplishment is the first successful attempt to directly image myelin damage and its progression "at the molecular level" in the spinal cord.

The team's MeDAS molecular probe is injected intravenously into the body. It's engineered with positron-emitting radioisotope label at the molecular level and binds to myelin in the central nervous system. Positron-emitting tomography (PET scanning) comes in to play at this point, zeroing in where the probe has attached itself. Clinicians can then theoretically build the resulting data into a viable, detailed image to assess a patient's status regarding myelin damage.

Of course, these are early, preclinical studies, where testing on rats showed promise. Much more work is needed to determine the probe's effectiveness and safety in people, though researchers said they've begun to ramp up efforts for human testing.

- read the release
- here's the journal abstract

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