Researchers look for clues in the blood to help solve the puzzle of Saskatchewan's high MS rates

Doctors with the University of Saskatchewan are sifting through clues like blood samples, hoping to piece together the reason why multiple sclerosis is so prevalent in Canada’s Prairies.

University of Saskatchewan researchers try to uncover reasons for disease's prevalence in the Prairies

Dr. Michael Levin is the University of Saskatchewan's chair in multiple sclerosis clinical research. Levin was recruited to Saskatchewan to improve MS research and clinical care in the province, with the new chair announced in January of 2017. (University of Saskatchewan photo)

Doctors with the University of Saskatchewan are sifting through clues like blood samples, hoping to piece together the reason why multiple sclerosis is so prevalent in Canada's Prairies.  

Dr. Michael Levin and Dr. Ilia Poliakov work closely as the research director and clinic director respectively at Saskatoon's MS clinic, located in City Hospital.   

"I think part of my vision — and I've believed this for a long time — is I really think people with MS will help cure MS, and people help us by participating in research," said Levin.

Much of MS research has focused on inherited mutations, and how genes passed from parents to children can increase the risk of acquiring MS, says Levin.

However, he says he is more focused on researching acquired mutations, and how environmental factors may play a role in MS. A new Statistics Canada report, released just this past week, shows that Canada may have the highest prevalence of MS in the world, with Saskatchewan having among the highest rates of MS in Canada.

Here in Saskatchewan, everyone knows someone with MS directly. There's just one degree of separation. So MS really affects everybody- Dr. Michael Levin, University of Saskatchewan

"In the [United] States, we all knew of someone with MS," Levin said, noting that the prevalence of MS in the U.S. is one in 1,000, compared to rates closer to one in 300 in Canada.

"Here in Saskatchewan, everyone knows someone with MS directly. There's just one degree of separation. So, MS really affects everybody."

Sunlight, vitamin D connection

One of the factors researchers have seen that correlates with incidences of MS is lower amounts of sunlight, which results in lower amounts of vitamin D, a factor Levin says he and Poliakov are digging into further.

When they see patients, they look at a full-scale picture, including the types of attacks patients are facing and how that affects them, the environment they live in and also clues in their blood samples.

"We try to find a profile in the blood that gives us a clue to why people are getting worse ... and also a clue to the cause," he said.

With time, he says he hopes to find "hot spots" in the province with higher rates of MS, to compare to areas with lower prevalence, in helping to assess risk factors.

Neurologists tackle 'opportunity of a lifetime'

He says his other goal is to see a reduction in the time between the onset of symptoms and a diagnosis for patients, which can result in less disability. The province is better placed to improve on this measure, he says, with he and Poliakov as two neurologists dedicated to studying and treating MS.

Levin, who is originally from Philadelphia, says he counts himself fortunate to study and treat MS here, in what may very well be the epicentre of the neurological disease in Canada.   

"It's really an opportunity of a lifetime."

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