Monday, August 31, 2009

Multiple Sclerosis

I believe in divine healing. I wonder if my prayers for healthy babies or traveling mercies have perhaps not only been answered positively but also prevented disasters and disabilities that I never even knew about. I certainly thank God for those answered prayers. I have often prayed for ill family and friends; and with time and often medical help, they have become well again. I would never want to neglect expressing my gratitude. But the miraculous instantaneous healing that I long to see is something I have never experienced. The dramatic stories both in the New Testament and in many anecdotal accounts thrill me, and I do believe. Yet I have no such story to share.

However, it has come to me that as marvelous it would be for my prayers for instant healing for a loved one to be answered, it would be even more marvelous for research to bring about medical miracles that would heal multitudes rather than just one person. So while I continue to pray that my daughter with multiple sclerosis will walk again, I also pray for researchers everywhere. Not just those researching MS and neurofibromatosis and cancer and the diseases of my loved ones, but all those diseases that beset the human race. And the great thing is that research in one medical area often benefits other areas just as space research benefited earthly projects.

So it was good today to read in the Sunday supplement magazine that after the appropriations to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) fell by almost 20% in the last five years, last winter Congress vote to raise NIH’s budget by 3.2% and the President has asked Congress to bring NIH’s budget to $31 billion for fiscal 2010. Other groups are working to bring the budget to $40 billion in the next five years. Arlen Specter is quoted as saying there are an estimated 110 million Americans who suffer from diseases such Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, autism, and cancer.

Research is slow and often takes years before a definite safe and helpful treatment or cure can be found. (It took over 15 years for the development of Tysabri for MS, for example.) But research strikes me as one of the most effective preventive health care activities we can fund. What better way to spend out money?

Yesterday the regional chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society sponsored a dinner and a report on MS research by Dr. Becky Parks of Washington University. I drove over to the banquet room in Carbondale to listen. It has long been reported that people south of the Mason-Dixon line are less likely to get MS than those in northern climes. It is thought that less sunshine has increased the risk of northerners. As we glanced at the material handed us and saw the first entry was on Vitamin D, I had to wonder since I know my daughter was outside often in the sunshine as a child. Across the table from me, a newly diagnosed young woman said she had always been a sun worshipper.

Nevertheless, experiments have shown that mice who are given large doses of vitamin D before being injected with agents that cause a mouse version of MS do not develop the disease. When treated with high vitamin D doses after getting the mouse version of MS, the disease is mild. (Since no one knows what causes MS, I wondered what the agents were that caused the mice to get their version of the disease.) People have concluded that vitamin D plays an important role in the immune system, specifically to help prevent inflammation. Continued research on low blood levels of vitamin D is continuing. But on a practical level, the advice is to be sure your doctor checks for vitamin D and if the level is low, take high doses to bring it up to help your immune system. Dr. Parks emphasized that just your ordinary across-the-counter vitamin D would not be strong enough to increase the deficiency.

Studies have shown that smokers have increased risk of MS and that smoking contributes to MS progression with more brain atrophy and MS lesions. Someone asked about second-hand smoke, and Dr. Parks said while no studies have been specifically done for that with MS, it was common sense from more general studies on second-hand smoke that it should be avoided.

While pregnancy seems to be beneficial to women with MS, they have often been torn about wanting to nurse their infants while also being encouraged to get back on their MS therapy quickly after childbirth to prevent relapse. Dr. Parks gave the good news that new research shows that women who exclusively breastfed their babies for at least two months had a lower risk of relapse during the year after childbirth than women who did not breastfeed—if they did not supplement the breastfeeding with formula.

To replace the daily or weekly shots that many MS patients give themselves, several oral medications are being studied: Cladribine, Fingolimod, BG-12 (dimethyl fumarate) , Teriflunomide, and Laquinimod. Infusion therapies being studied are for Campath (alemtuzumab) and Rituximab. All of these are mere treatment drugs and not preventative or curative. But I had to hope that knowledge gained from these drugs’ research would enlighten us as to cause and cure and later bring about methods for rebuilding of myelin and reversing disability.

I learned the difference between Phase II and Phase III trials. Phase II trials are for shorter times and with fewer patients. If comparison between those given the meds as opposed to the placebo, show good results, then with proper funding, Phase III trails may be begun with more participants and for longer periods of time. If those results are good, the studies can be submitted to the FDA for approval. As hopeful as Dr. Parks was able to be, she was also honest about the side-effects—sometimes life threatening with new drugs until proper doses and protocol are refined—and sometimes prohibitive for the drug’s use for some patients.

After the Q and A was over, people socialized a bit, and then those fortunate MS patients walked out with their limps and jagged walks and perhaps a cane or walker. Others left in their wheel chairs and scooters. I hope all of us left with a little more hope and with prayers for researchers everywhere and for increased funding for their work. We need to pray also for excellent science teachers who can help our high school and college students achieve the necessary academic ability to go into research. And the altruism to stick with it when the funding and interest are low.

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