Lab equipment

Researchers based at the University of Plymouth have joined scientists around the world to carry out studies to find effective ways of treating progressive forms of the condition multiple sclerosis (MS).

Jonathan Marsden, Professor and Chair in Rehabilitation at the University of Plymouth's Faculty of Health & Human Sciences, will lead a one year study to see whether an eye movement training programme in people with progressive forms of MS can help them better manage balance and mobility problems. 

The study is one of 22 projects that have been funded in nine countries across the world, announced today at an MS conference in Boston, USA.

It’s part of the largest ever global effort to find effective treatments for progressive MS; collectively the projects cost more than £17.5million and funding for them has been made available from the UK MS Society and MS charities in the USA, Canada, Italy and the MS International Federation, with additional support from MS charities in Spain and Denmark, all working together under the banner of the ‘Progressive MS Alliance’.

In progressive MS, symptoms get gradually worse with no remission and there is no treatment that can slow or stop the accumulation of disability. There are more than 100,000 people living with MS in the UK, the majority with a progressive form. Across the world, more than a million people have progressive MS.

Problems with eyesight and balance are common in people with progressive MS, and Professor Marsden’s work will look at how these may be linked and, by participating in a month-long course, how people with MS could manage their balance by ‘re-training’ eye movement.

The work could lead to a new, effective way of managing the symptoms of progressive MS. 

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of the MS Society in the UK, said: 

“We know that people desperately want more effective treatments for progressive MS – and by working with MS charities across the world, we hope to achieve this. We are delighted to be co-funding this study at the University of Plymouth, which could lead to a new way of understanding and treating balance problems in people with MS. 

Michelle continued: 

“Over the last few years several new therapies for relapsing remitting MS have been approved for use in the UK, but there remains a void when it comes to effective therapies for progressive MS and while advances have been made, there is nothing yet available. This global research collaboration is ignoring international borders, we’re simply funding the best science in the world – such is the need to urgently get answers to key questions.”

Of the 22 projects funded, four are in the UK. They include studies at the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, the University of Cambridge and Professor Marsden’s work at the University of Plymouth.

Professor Marsden said: 

“I’m delighted to be part of this global effort to find treatments for people with progressive MS. Our OPTIMEYES project has gathered a team of researchers from the UK, Belgium and the USA to find new ways to target balance problems in people with MS. Treatments for these symptoms are currently limited and this project is an important step in developing such therapies.”

It’s hoped the global funding provided by the Progressive MS Alliance will speed up research into the condition, as scientists will be able to share knowledge and expertise, and will avoid duplicating work. Collectively, the charities involved are also able to fund more and bigger, expensive projects compared to if they were working in isolation. 

Of the remaining 18 projects funded outside of the UK, researchers will be funded in: Australia (Monash University TBD), Belgium (University Hasselt), Canada (McGill University), Italy (University of Verona), Netherlands (Free University), Spain (Vall d’Hebron Research Institute), Sweden (Karolinska Institute and Umeå University), and the United States (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Johns Hopkins University, Kessler Foundation Research Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Renovo Neural, Inc., Stanford University, University of California-San Francisco, Yale University).