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UI professor receives $226,000 from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No one knows for sure what causes multiple sclerosis (MS). Many scientists think that certain people are genetically predisposed to get the disease, and MS is triggered when those people are exposed to a virus or other environmental factor. Just how this happens is also a matter of speculation.

Dr. Stanley Perlman, University of Iowa professor of pediatrics, believes that MS involves a virus, the immune system and the ability of the virus to escape the immune response. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society awarded him $226,641 to investigate this hypothesis over a three-year period in a mouse model of MS. The grant started April 1, 1997.

Here's how Perlman thinks it might work. A person with the particular genetic makeup that allows the development of MS is exposed to a virus - the exact virus is currently unknown. The immune system is activated and destroys most of the virus; the remaining bit mutates and becomes resistant to "killer" cells that keep the virus in check. The mutant eludes the immune system and as the remaining immune response tries to eliminate the virus, it damages the myelin coating that surrounds many nerves. Damage to this protective sheath hampers transmission of information along the nerve.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often progressive and disabling disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The symptoms vary with each individual but often include fatigue, impaired vision, loss of balance and muscle coordination, speech difficulties, tremors, stiffness, and partial or complete paralysis.

The Iowa Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that in 1995 there were more than 2,000 people in the state with the disease.

Mutants that escape killer cell function are found in some patients with other diseases produced by infections, such as hepatitis B and HIV.

"It happens for sure in a minority of patients," Perlman says, "but the general importance is controversial since the mutant isn't found in all patients infected with these viruses."

Perlman's theory that these mutants play an important role in the development of multiple sclerosis developed from experiments performed in his laboratory.

Investigating the role of the viral mutants in mice is only the first step.

"We hope to eventually study this in humans," he says.