Results of a small study suggest it may be possible, by detecting the presence of a blood biomarker, to predict whether a person is going to develop multiple sclerosis long before symptoms of the disease emerge.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease where the body’s own immune system gradually disrupts the blood brain barrier and attacks the myelin sheath that insulates the nerves, stopping the electrical signals they convey from leaking out.

As the disease progresses, symptoms develop – such as mild numbness in the arms and legs – eventually leading to paralysis and blindness.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS affects around 2.3 million people worldwide, 400,000 of them in the US, where – with the exception of trauma – it is considered the most frequent cause of neurological disability that starts before old age.

In this new study, the researchers found that antibodies against a potassium channel protein called KIR4.1 appeared years before clinical onset of multiple sclerosis (MS).

The findings are due to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA, at the end of April.

Study author Dr. Viola Biberacher, of the Technical University in Munich, Germany, says:

If our results can be replicated in larger populations, our findings may help to detect MS earlier in a subgroup of patients. Finding the disease before symptoms appear means we can better prepare to treat and possibly even prevent those symptoms.”

Some patients with MS have antibodies against KIR4.1, but it is not clear whether this precedes the disease or follows it.

For their study, the researchers compared blood from 16 blood donors who later developed MS with 16 matched healthy donors who did not develop the disease. The researchers examined the blood samples for signs of a specific antibody to KIR4.1.

The blood samples for this stage were collected between 2 and 9 months before the symptoms of MS started to emerge.

None of the healthy controls showed signs of the KIR4.1 antibody. Of the participants who later developed MS, seven tested positive, two showed borderline activity and seven tested negative for the antibody.

The researchers also tested samples of blood that had been donated up to 6 years before onset and samples donated after disease onset in those MS patients who tested positive for KIR4.1.

They found KIR4.1 antibodies in pre-clinical MS patients several years before the first clinical attack, and levels of the antibodies were different at different time points for individual pre-clinical MS patients.

Dr. Biberacher says these findings now need to be confirmed with larger groups to establish how many years before disease onset the antibody response is first present.

Funds from the German Education and Research Ministry and the German Competence Network for Multiple Sclerosis helped finance the study.

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned of a study that suggests a food bug toxin may trigger MS. The researchers behind that study found that epsilon toxin – which is produced by certain strains of the foodborne bacterium Clostridium perfringens – targets myelin-producing cells and may cause the blood brain barrier to become permeable.