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University of Basel

New Blood Marker Provides Insight into MS Disease Activity

drawing blood for testing
When neurons are damaged by multiple sclerosis, this can be detected by a marker in the blood. (Symbolic image: Hush Naidoo Jade Photography, unsplash)

Nerve damage in multiple sclerosis can be detected via the concentration of neurofilament light chain in the blood. According to researchers from the University of Basel and University Hospital Basel, this neuron-specific protein provides valuable information on future disease course and the effectiveness of therapies.

17 February 2022

drawing blood for testing
When neurons are damaged by multiple sclerosis, this can be detected by a marker in the blood. (Symbolic image: Hush Naidoo Jade Photography, unsplash)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that leads to transient or permanent functional impairment of functions of the nervous system and eventually increasing disability. However, the disease can worsen very differently from person to person, making it difficult to detect disease activity early and accurately and hence tailor treatment to individual needs.

Researchers led by Professor Jens Kuhle have now described the importance of the protein neurofilament light chain (NfL), which occurs exclusively in nerve cells, as a valuable and specific marker for nerve damage in MS. They have reported their findings in the journal Lancet Neurology.

Schematics of a damaged neuron leaking neurofilament
Schematics of a neuron damaged by MS. (Image: University of Basel, University Hospital Basel)

For their study, the researchers determined NfL concentrations in more than 20,000 blood samples from over 10,000 patients with MS and healthy control persons (see box). They were able to assess the effects of aging and body weight on normal concentrations measured in healthy control persons, and thereby to determine more precisely determine the threshold to pathologically elevated levels in patients.

They used the data to create a large, international reference database that enabled them to identify increased values of NfL in individual blood samples of patients with MS in a meaningful way, indicative of ongoing disease activity. This method also allowed the team to better compare the efficacy of different MS therapies.

Marker indicates current and future MS disease activity

In two large independent groups of people with MS, a strong correlation was found between elevated levels of NfL in the blood and current disease activity in the central nervous system.

Strikingly, the researchers, using this precise method, also detected elevated NfL levels in a group of MS sufferers in whom the disease did not appear to be active according to conventional and standard of care criteria. “Even if the condition of those affected appears to be stable with the clinical and imaging methods available today, the damage to the nervous system appears to progress insidiously and initially unnoticed in some cases,” explains Dr. Pascal Benkert, who shares first authorship of the study with PhD student Stephanie Meier.

About the study

The results are based on a systematic study of over 5,000 people with MS from the Swiss MS Cohort Study and the Swedish MS Registry, as well as over 10,000 blood samples from about 5,000 healthy people in the US and Europe over a period of 10 years, which were used to test and validate the reference database.

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