September 30, 2013 - A milestone has been reached on the path to finding a cure for multiple sclerosis, researchers believe.
A group of international scientists, including an Australian contingent, has discovered 48 previously unknown genes that influence the risk of developing the disease.
MS, which attacks the central nervous system and can have an impact on mobility, balance and sensation, affects 23,000 Australians.
The discovery is a big step towards finding a cure and further treatment for the debilitating condition, according to University of Sydney associate professor David Booth, who led the Australian and New Zealand component of the study.
"The exciting thing about this is we have doubled the number of genes that we now know are associated with MS," he said. "What that means is every one of those new genes is potentially providing us with a new way to understand the disease and to come up with new therapies for the disease."
Researchers believe the findings underline the central role the immune system plays in the development of MS.
The results also show an overlap with genes found to be linked to other autoimmune diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease and coeliac disease.
The findings of the team of scientists, working under the umbrella of the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium, were published in medical journal Nature Genetics on Monday.
As part of the study, the largest investigation of MS genetics to date, DNA from blood samples from 80,000 people with and without the condition were examined, including 1800 from Australia and New Zealand.
Booth said the "milestone" provided specific research targets. "So going forward we will try and find out why all of these genes affect MS," he said. "And particularly finding which processes are tagged by groups of genes and that will give us specific information on immune processes that are not functioning as they should."
As a result of the findings, there are now 110 genetic variants linked to MS.
MS Research Australia's chief executive, Matthew Miles, said the work was a huge contribution to understanding MS.