Multiple sclerosis (MS) afflicts around 400,000 people nationwide, with 200 new cases diagnosed each week. Initially, this debilitating autoimmune disease causes weakness, loss of balance, disturbances to vision and difficulty thinking. As it progresses, people may lose the ability to walk, see, eat, speak or think clearly.
Patients typically get the diagnosis around age 30 and start using some kind of mobility aid by age 45 or 50. Those with the most severe cases are typically bed ridden by age 60. Unfortunately, the medications that are currently available don’t do much to slow down the progress of the disease.
“Vitamin D Hypothesis”
While scientists don’t fully understand what triggers MS, several studies have linked low levels of vitamin D with a higher risk of developing the disease. University of Wisconsin-Madison Biochemistry professor, Colleen Hayes, has been studying this “vitamin D hypothesis” for the past 25 years. Seeking better treatment options for MS patients, her team of researchers discovered a role for vitamin D based treatment that can halt — and even reverse — the course of the disease in mice.
In the current study, which was funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Hayes’ team compared various vitamin D based treatments to standard MS drugs. In each case, vitamin D based treatments were far more effective.
First, Hayes’ team compared the effectiveness of a single dose of calcitriol, the active hormone form of vitamin D, to that of a comparable dose of a glucocorticoid, a drug now used to treat MS. Ninety-two percent of the Mice receiving calcitriol exhibited a 9 day remission on average. In contrast only 58% of Mice receiving the standard drug, glucocorticoid, exhibited a remission, and the remission was only for 6 days.
Next, Hayes’ team administered a weekly dose of calcitriol. The weekly dose actually reversed the disease and put the mice in indefinite remission.
Vitamin D Supplementation to the Rescue
Unfortunately, calcitriol has dangerous side effects when used continuously. It’s a “biological sledgehammer” that can raise blood calcium to high levels. So researchers tried giving only a single dose of calcitriol, followed by ongoing vitamin D supplements in the diet. Professor Hayes described the new approach as “a runaway success.” “All of the animals just got better and better, and the longer we watched them, the more neurological function they regained,” explained Hayes.
Hayes believes that the calcitriol may cause the autoimmune cells attacking the nerve cells’ myelin coating to die, while the vitamin D prevents new autoimmune cells from taking their place.
While she is excited about the prospect of her research helping MS patients someday, Hayes is quick to point out that it’s based on a mouse model of disease, not the real thing. “It’s not certain we’ll be able to translate (this discovery to humans),” Hayes warned. “But I think the chances are good because we have such a broad foundation of data showing protective effects of vitamin D in humans.”
“It’s my hope that one day doctors will be able to say, ‘We’re going to give you an oral calcitriol dose and ramp up the vitamin D in your diet, and then we’re going to follow you closely over the next few months. You’re just going to have this one neurological episode and that will be the end of it,'” says Hayes. “That’s my dream.”