UW News

October 25, 1998

UW receives $3.5 million in federal funds to establish the country’s only Multiple Sclerosis Research and Training Center, based at UW Medical Center

The University of Washington has received notification from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research that it will receive $3.5 million for a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Research and Training Center, renewable every five years.

“UW Medical Center has had a Multiple Sclerosis Clinic for 21 years and has a long record of research into MS,” said Dr. George Kraft, professor of rehabilitation medicine, who will head the new center. “This grant will allow us to greatly expand our research into the optimum methods of treating people with MS.”

Kraft noted the Northwest has a very high prevalence of MS, so it is appropriate that the new center be located in Seattle. The UW competed for the funding, which had been awarded for the past 15 years to Albert Einstein Medical College in New York.

UW Medical Center’s MS Clinic currently treats more than 750 patients. With the new grant, 1,200 MS patients will be enrolled in various research studies proposed for the grant. They will be drawn from the five-state WWAMI region served by the UW School of Medicine (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho), as well as Hawaii.

A major goal, said Kraft, is to develop and evaluate various strategies for improving the care and functioning of people with MS. The researchers will investigate the benefits of early identification of the disease and prompt treatment of psychological distress, such as depression, and the effects of employment issues and aging on persons with MS. They will also investigate differences in the incidence of MS as influenced by people’s ethnic, cultural, geographic and health care backgrounds.

The MS Clinic will be expanded, with the addition of patient counselors who provide increased access for patients, including telephone counseling. A menu of specific wellness activities will be developed to address some of the issues people face in managing their illness.

Kraft and his colleagues plan to utilize professional contacts with physicians throughout the WWAMI region, as well as Medcon, the UW’s free consulting service for physicians, to allow patients to remain in their home communities for evaluation, rehabilitation and treatment.

The addition of patients from Hawaii is noteworthy, said Kraft, because of the much greater incidence of MS in temperate climates compared to incidence in the tropics. The incidence is about 150 cases per 100,000 population in Washington, versus just 58 per 100,000 in Florida.

“We know the prevalence is based not just on where you live, but on where you grew up,” said Kraft. “MS is caused by something acquired during the first 15 years of life.” The majority of MS cases in Hawaii, for example, are among Caucasians who moved there after childhood. Researchers think the disease is caused by environmental factors — viral or bacterial assaults on the immune system — combined with a receptive genetic background.

The MS Clinic and the new MS Research and Training Center are administered by the UW’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, which was ranked second in the nation in the latest U.S. News & World Report hospital rankings.

For information about MS treatment at the UW, call (206) 598-3344.

Facts about multiple sclerosis:
Sources: National MS Society and University of Washington

o MS attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy studies at the UW have shown abnormalities in the nerve tissue itself, not just in the myelin coating of the nerve.

o MS tends to take one of four clinical courses:
1. Benign sensory MS, where attacks are characterized by sensory symptoms and/or optic neuritis;
2. Relapsing-remitting MS, characterized by partial or total recovery after attacks (also called exacerbations, relapses or flares);
3. Secondary progressive MS, which follows a relapsing-remitting course that later becomes steadily progressive;
4. Primary progressive MS, found in a minority of patients who have progressive disease from the outset.

o Studies at the UW have pinpointed fatigue as the most common symptom.

o As well as physical symptoms, MS can cause cognitive difficulties such as short-term memory problems and depression.

o Patients do better if they keep their body temperature cool, as shown by a heat extraction study performed at the UW, using cooling suits developed by NASA.

o There are now three medications available to treat MS, all identified since 1993 and all for relapsing-remitting MS. The UW is beginning clinical trials of a medication for secondary progressive MS.

o Aggressive treatment is important to minimize damage. MRIs done every six weeks as part of a drug study detected frequent flareups in different parts of the brain, even in MS patients who were not experiencing exacerbations.

o In the U.S., an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 people have MS.
o MS is twice as common among women as among men.

o MS is more common among Caucasians (particularly of Northern European ancestry) than in other races. It is almost unheard of in some populations, such as Eskimos.

o It occurs with much greater frequency in higher latitudes than in lower latitudes; in the U.S. the incidence is 57 to 78 cases per 100,000 below the 37th parallel and 110 to 140 cases per 100,000 above the 37th parallel.

o An individual born in an area of higher risk who moves to an area of lower risk acquires the risk of the new home if the move occurs before age 15.