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Studying human tissue can reveal vital clues to a disease that no other research strategy can. That makes the UK Multiple Sclerosis Tissue Bank of fundamental importance in MS research. Here, the scientists who run it, Professor Richard Reynolds and Dr Abhi Vora, talk to Sarah Featherstone.
Q So what is the MS Tissue Bank?
Abhi: The MS Tissue Bank is two things. It provides a facility for people to donate their tissues after death to MS research and it is an essential resource for scientists working to find better MS treatments.
Q Who set it up and how long has it been running?
Richard: In 1998 the MS Society awarded a five-year grant to Imperial College School of Medicine at Charing Cross Hospital, London, to enable the setting up of a national MS Tissue Bank. An Independent Review Panel has confirmed the high quality of the MS Tissue Bank’s work and we’re delighted that the MS Society has agreed to fund us now until March 2008.
Q What are the Tissue Bank’s main aims?
Richard: Our aim is to stimulate new research into MS – that’s our number one goal. We can provide teams of research scientists with MS tissue so that they can carry out research on how the nervous system becomes damaged by MS and hoe new drug treatments can be designed to stop and reverse that damage. We also want to ensure that enough tissue is available for MS researchers both in the UK and abroad so that their work can go forward without hindrance.
Q Why is donated tissue important?
Richard: The donation of tissue is essential to the future of MS research. If no further research is carried out into the way MS affects the brain, then there are unlikely to be any new MS treatments available in the future. The use of MS tissue is a very important part of a multi-sided effort by scientists to understand how to stop MS. It contributes to the hope for better treatments in the future.
Q Can you give me an example of a current research project that uses donated tissue?
Richard: I think one of the most important projects that we’re supplying tissue to is an MS Society funded project at the Institute of Neurology, London. They are examining tissue using the MRI scanner to try and work out how they can detect repair in the brains of people with MS. If we can follow the repair processes in the brain during the whole courses of MS, we’ll be able to see also how drugs can improve that repair process.
Q Are there some studies that can only be done using donated tissue?
Richard: One of the mysteries of MS is why the natural repair mechanisms in the brain eventually fail when all other scientific evidence suggests that they should keep going. We cannot truly begin to understand how to stimulate repair unless we can study the tissue in which that repair has obviously failed.
Q What progress has been made in the time that the Tissue Bank has been running?
Abhi: We’ve made progress in terms of providing a facility for people who want to donate tissue to MS research. Over 2,200 people have so far registered as donors, indicating the high level of interest that’s out there in the MS community. People want to help research into MS in this way.
Richard: There has also been a steady increase in the number of research projects that have been requesting tissue. We know that new avenues of research are being stimulated by the availability of MS tissue from this bank. We’ve supplied tissue to 60 different research projects and we’ve become known as one of only three major resources for MS tissue in the world. We’re probably the major supplier of MS tissue for research in Europe.
Q Do you need tissue just from people with MS?
Abhi: we want to increase the number of donors who do not have MS. At the moment, they make up only 25 to 30 per cent of our registered donors. Researchers need to compare the tissue from a person who had MS with that of someone who didn’t. It’s only by making these comparisons that they can identify the changes that are specific to MS. So tissue from people who don’t have MS is just as important.
Q What should people do if they want to find out about becoming a donor?
Abhi: The first thing to do is get the MS Tissue Bank’s information pack. It provides all the information to help someone decide whether or not they want to become a donor and enables them to discuss their wishes with members of their family. Sometimes people may have more specific questions that they want answered and they can also ring us to discuss those.
Richard: The MS Tissue Bank also has a web page from which people can obtain information on how to become a donor. By donating tissue people are making a very special contribution to discovering a treatment for MS. It’s a valuable gift – vital to MS research and the development of new therapies.