Multiple sclerosis (MS) and HIV/AIDS are two of the most devastating disease researchers are currently battling. While we are starting to turn the tides against HIV, MS treatments still lag behind. MS is a disease characterized by permanent neurological damage leading to balance problems, dizziness, difficulty swallowing and speaking, difficulty walking and weakness, and other debilitating problems. About 100,000 Canadians are living with MS and MS can affect anyone between the ages of 15-40. In MS, the insulation of the nerves (called myelin) is damaged by the immune system, which cause the nerves, in a way, to short circuit. MS is classified as an autoimmune disease because the damage to the myelin is caused by the body’s own immune system gone awry. What causes the autoimmune response is unknown but it has been theorized to be caused by an overactive immune system (likely due to genetics) or viral infection. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to autoimmune disorders. Recently, it initially looked like there was a treatment on the horizon for MS, the so called liberation therapy, new research has cast doubt on its effectiveness. But what if we could find a way to prevent people from developing MS? Well current research suggests that people who have HIV/AIDS are resistant to the development of MS!
The research, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, compared the rates of MS in 21,207 patients with HIV with over 5 million people without HIV and saw that patients who had HIV/AIDS were over over 60% less likely to develop MS than those patients without HIV/AIDS. But why? The authors suggest two ideas.
First, since the HIV virus attacks the cells of the immune system, it is possible that people with HIV/AIDS don’t have an active enough immune systems to start attacking the myelin of the nerves and therefore protecting them from MS. In this case, we may be able to develop drugs that dampen immune cells similar to the ones that the HIV virus targets, those being T-helper cells that are important in regulating the production of antibodies by B-cells (among other functions.
The second idea involves the theory that viral infection plays a role in the development of or exacerbation of MS. Other viral exacerbations that have been linked to MS are Epstein-Barr virus (responsible for mononucleosis), human herpes virus 6, and human endogenous retroviruses. Since most HIV/AIDS patients are on drugs that suppress the HIV viruses activity, it is likely that these drugs also suppress any other active viral infections within a person and therefore can prevent MS exacerbations. So why are all MS patients not put on anti-viral drugs? Anti-viral drugs have more side effects than antibiotics and suffer from drug resistance in much the same way as bacteria resist antibiotics. So it would not be feasible to treat all patients with antivirals. However, if we can develop better antivirals or find a way to suppress viral activity in MS patients, we may prevent symptom exacerbation and be able to better treat MS.
Most people would not rush out to get infected by HIV in order to protect themselves from developing MS; however we may be able to figure out what protects people with HIV/AIDS from developing MS in hopes of developing a treatment to combat this devastating disease or other autoimmune diseases. This research may even turn the modern day horror of HIV/AIDS into a hero of sorts. Well, almost.