Signs of multiple sclerosis show up in blood years before symptoms

April 22, 2024
UCSF scientists clear a potential path toward earlier treatment for a disease that affects nearly 1,000,000 people in the United States.

In a discovery that could hasten treatment for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), UC San Francisco scientists have discovered a harbinger in the blood of some people who later went on to develop the disease. 

In about 1 in 10 cases of MS, the body begins producing a distinctive set of antibodies against its own proteins years before symptoms emerge. These autoantibodies appear to bind to both human cells and common pathogens, possibly explaining the immune attacks on the brain and spinal cord that are the hallmark of MS.   

The findings were published in Nature Medicine on April 19.

MS can lead to a devastating loss of motor control, although new treatments can slow the progress of the disease and, for example, preserve a patient’s ability to walk. The scientists hope the autoantibodies they have discovered will one day be detected with a simple blood test, giving patients a head start on receiving treatment.  

The group analyzed blood from 250 MS patients collected after their diagnosis, plus samples taken five or more years earlier when they joined the military. The researchers also looked at comparable blood samples from 250 healthy veterans.  

Using a mere one-thousandth of a milliliter of blood from each time point, the scientists thought they would see a jump in autoantibodies as the first symptoms of MS appeared. Instead, they found that 10% of the MS patients had a striking abundance of autoantibodies years before their diagnosis.  

The dozen or so autoantibodies all stuck to a chemical pattern that resembled one found in common viruses, including Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), which infects more than 85% of all people, yet has been flagged in previous studies as a contributing cause for MS.  

Years before diagnosis, this subset of MS patients had other signs of an immune war in the brain. Ahmed Abdelhak,MD, co-author of the paperand a postdoctoral researcher in the UCSF laboratory of Ari Green, MD, found thatpatients with theseautoantibodies had elevated levels of neurofilament light (Nfl), a protein that gets released as neurons break down. 

To confirm their findings, the team analyzed blood samples from patients in the UCSF ORIGINS study. These patients all had neurological symptoms and many, but not all, went on to be diagnosed with MS.  

Once again, 10% of the patients in the ORIGINS study who were diagnosed with MS had the same autoantibody pattern. The pattern was 100% predictive of an MS diagnosis. Across both the Department of Defense group and the ORIGINS group, every patient with this autoantibody pattern had MS. 

UC San Francisco release on Newswise