What is multiple sclerosis (MS)?
MS is a neurological disorder that affects the central nervous system and can, to varying degrees, interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses throughout the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Despite major advances in the treatment of MS, it remains an incurable and often progressive disease with significant personal and societal impacts.
MS affects more than 25,607 Australians and over 2.8 million people worldwide, with a 4% increase each year. In Tasmania, we have the highest number of MS diagnosis in the country, with approximately 138.7 people diagnosed per 100,000. This unique concentration in Tasmania is one of the reasons why the Menzies Institute conducts internationally significant MS research to improve the lives of Tasmanians living with MS.
Most people are diagnosed with MS between the ages of 20-40, and women account for three out of every four diagnoses. Our research also shows that the overall cost of MS increased by 41% between 2010 and 2017 and that MS now costs Australia $1.75 billion annually ($68,382 per person living with MS), with the increased cost being directly linked to increased disability.
There is currently no established way to prevent, mitigate or reverse disability accumulation in people living with MS. Despite significant advances in the MS research field, few new discoveries have been able to effectively treat disability.
The MS Research Flagship
The MS Research Flagship is a Flagship program of the University of Tasmania, College of Health and Medicine and was established from a long history of MS research at Menzies Institute for Medical Research. Menzies has proudly been at the forefront of research advancements in MS for more than 30 years. Our scientists, in collaboration with other researchers around the world, have been responsible for many of the breakthroughs in MS research, including the link between UV exposure (Vitamin D) and a reduced risk of MS.
The MS Research Flagship is a hub of interdisciplinary MS research, knowledge, knowledge translation and support within Menzies, which builds momentum across the wider MS community, nationally and internationally, towards improving outcomes for people living with MS and ultimately curing MS.
The MS Research Flagship utilises the unique concentration of people living with MS and MS research in Tasmania. Our program is strongly connected with national and international MS researchers, collaborators, MS societies and people living with MS, and works to address the gaps in MS assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. The goal of the MS Research Flagship is to perform high-quality, interdisciplinary, and consumer-engaged research designed to reduce the impact of MS on individuals, their families and society. We also manage Australia’s largest cohort study of people with MS (the Australian MS Longitudinal Study). This research provides advocacy groups, government agencies, and other researchers with practical information on how MS is impacting on people’s lives.
There are currently about 50 researchers and professional staff working within the MS Research Flagship.
Our research and people
Among the breadth of work undertaken by the MS Research Flagship, there are five main research areas, each led by a specific team leader:
Brain health and disease
We are working with the MS community to establish MS Stem, a biobank containing stem cell lines that are generated from individuals with MS or their unaffected family members. Each stem cell line is studied in the laboratory so that we can learn what causes MS. We use these stem cells and other preclinical models of myelin loss to understand how MS affects brain cells and to develop potential myelin repair treatments for people with MS.
Team leader: Professor Kaylene Young
Current MS treatments target the immune system, but a treatment that promotes nervous system repair is also needed. Professor Kaylene Young's team is working to develop and test new myelin repair treatments that we hope will protect nerve cells and overcome MS-related disability.
Spotlight on current projects:
— MS Stem: investigating mechanisms of multiple sclerosis (MS) in induced pluripotent stem cells.
We aim to further advance MS research by taking new discoveries and potential therapies out of the laboratory and into the lives of people with MS. Clinical trials help to determine if new therapies are safe, effective, and/or cost-effective. This is sometimes referred to as ‘bench to bedside’ or ‘translational research’.
Team leader: Professor Bruce Taylor
Professor Bruce Taylor is a clinical neurologist concerned with how to slow the progression of the disease, but his ultimate goal is to prevent the onset of MS.
Spotlight on current projects:
— TAURUS trial – a clinical trial looking to find out if low intensity magnetic brain stimulation (MBS) is an effective treatment for MS. This phase 2 participant-based trial is now recruiting.
We are developing educational tools and online resources, including an MS symptom tracking App, MySymptoMS specifically for people living with MS.
Team leader: Professor Ingrid van der Mei
Professor Ingrid van der Mei is an epidemiologist focusing on why people get MS and what influences the progression. She also examines whether digital technology solutions can improve the lives of people with MS.
Spotlight on current projects:
— Primary Progressive MS Study
— MS WorkSmart
Genetics plays an important role in MS risk. ‘Case-control’ studies have successfully identified some of the population-level genetics risk factors for MS but haven’t been able to provide the kind of genetic information that leads to new treatments. Families with multiple cases of MS are uncommon, but they do exist. These families allow us to use ‘precision’ or personalised medicine approaches, including whole genome sequencing, to pinpoint specific genetic differences that might lead to MS development, or to determine why some people are more susceptible to nerve damage in MS. This work aims to find new MS risk genes and lead to treatments aimed at protecting or repairing the nervous system.
Team leader: Dr Jac Charlesworth
Dr Jac Charlesworth is a computational geneticist who works with families where several relatives have MS. She studies the genomes of all the family members, with and without MS, to find genes involved in disease risk. She then works with Professor Young’s team to determine how these genes function in stem cell models of MS, and whether they can be safely targeted with drugs or therapeutic compounds.
Spotlight on current projects:
— The MS Family Sequencing Study
— Understanding the genetics of brain lesion formation
— Collaborative genomics research with MS Consortia including ANZgene and the International MS Genetics Consortia (IMSGC)
We are developing a treatment economic model which can identify cost-effective treatments and interventions for MS.
Team leader: Professor Andrew Palmer
Health economist Professor Andrew Palmer is working with MS Australia to develop a "Gold Standard" health economics simulation model to assess new interventions or medications in the treatment of MS.
Other research highlights
‘Understanding MS’ massive open online course (MOOC)
This free online course is offered in collaboration with MS Plus and was ranked in the top 10 online courses of all time in 2022. It is a major component of the MS Research Flagship and aims to improve understanding and awareness of MS. Members of the public can increase their knowledge of MS-related issues and those in the MS community will be empowered to create and contribute to personalised MS management plans.
If you’re interested in this free online course, you can sign up here: https://ms.mooc.utas.edu.au/.
Consumer and community involvement
We understand the importance of MS community involvement and participation, with community consultation at the heart of the program. The MS Research Flagship has established a Consumer and Community Reference Committee chaired by Associate Professor Des Graham, President of MS Australia and a person living with MS. The Committee gives members of the MS community the chance to have their say and, where appropriate, input into all current and future MS research activities undertaken by the MS Research Flagship and their collaborators.
Stay connected and get involved
There are several ways for you to stay connected and get involved with the MS Research Flagship:
- Sign up for the newsletter by emailing: SM-MSResearch.Engagement@utas.edu.au
- Enrol in the Understanding MS course here:
- Like the Understanding MS Facebook page here:
- Follow the Menzies Institute for Medical Research on social media:
Twitter – https://twitter.com/ResearchMenzies
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/MenziesResearch/
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/company/menzies-institute-for-medical-research/
YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/c/MenziesInstituteforMedicalResearch
- Register your interest to get involved in workshops, focus groups, community consultations or advisory groups to contribute to MS research. Send an email to SM-MSResearch.Engagement@utas.edu.au
- Donate to help us continue undertaking life-changing MS research:
Consumer Involvement: Please contact the Consumer and Community Involvement Manager, Viv Jones, via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
General Enquiries: Please contact the Program Manager, Natasha Stevens, via email email@example.com
Media Enquiries: Please contact the Communications Officer, Rachel Clemons, via email firstname.lastname@example.org
The MS Research Flagship is funded by the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), Emerging Priorities and Consumer Driven Research, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC); MS Research Australia (MSRA); Royal Hobart Hospital Research Foundation (RHHRF); the Irene Phelps Charitable Trust, the University of Tasmania, the Menzies Institute for Medical Research and philanthropic donations and bequests, and is supported by organisations such as MS Plus and MS Australia.