What is a brain bank and how is it helping people with Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most common diseases of the central nervous system. To tie in with World MS day, which takes place on 30 May 2022, we spoke to Associate Professor Michael Buckland, Senior Staff Specialist and the Head of the Department of Neuropathology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. A/Prof Buckland is Co-Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Australia Brain Bank which has been operating for over 14 years across Australia, and has built up a large collection of tissue specifically for use in MS research.
“Established in 2008, as a collaboration between Sydney Local Health District, the University of Sydney and MS Australia, the MS Australia Brain Bank collects post-mortem brain and spinal cord donations from people with MS from across Australia. We collect, characterise and store tissue from donors and provide to researchers in Australia and internationally for specific research projects. Just recently, we have also started collecting ‘control cases’ from healthy donors, often from friends and family of people with MS, so that we can compare MS tissues with tissue derived from people who do not have a brain disease or other neurological diseases.
“The MS Australia Brain Bank is a national effort which aims to enable researchers from everywhere to access tissue. We currently have around 130 brains banked and have given tissue to around almost 30 projects since 2015. This includes a whole range of different research projects in Australia but also internationally, including in Europe and the US,” said A/Prof Buckland.
MS is a progressive neurological disease that affects more than 25,000 Australians. There are approximately 4000 people in New Zealand diagnosed with MS. The disease interferes with nerve impulses within the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, and symptoms usually appear between the ages of 20 and 50, with a peak in the early 30s. There is currently no cure for MS, but there has been much progress in developing new drugs to treat it.
“It has really been in the past 12 or so years that there has been an explosion in the number of drugs that have been approved for the treatment of MS. Almost all of these drugs are based on discoveries made from examining tissue. Particularly for MS I think tissue-based research has really driven the explosion in effective MS therapies. The MS Australia Brain Bank is about trying to accelerate that growth and facilitate further research.
“The research projects are largely based around treatment, not only trying to limit disease activity but restoring myelin – the protective coating around nerve fibres in the central nervous system which is a primary target of the immune attack in MS. Until recently all the drugs have focused on reducing the frequency of those attacks, however the new generation of drugs will be about promoting repair as well as reducing the frequency of attacks. This has all come from tissue-based research,” said A/Prof Buckland.
Every person with MS in Australia above the age of 18 can choose to donate their brain and other tissues of the nervous system for the purposes of MS research after their death. Because researchers need to compare MS tissues with tissue derived from people who do not have MS, people without MS, including family members and friends, can still donate their brains for research.