Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis

Nerve cell being attached by a virus
Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory condition that prevents the proper functioning of the central nervous system. This debilitating condition is most commonly diagnosed in young adults. It is not known what triggers multiple sclerosis, or how to cure it. These important questions are the focus of our multiple sclerosis research.


Dr Simon Willis research aims to discovery how multiple sclerosis occurs
Dr Simon Willis aims to discover how multiple sclerosis occurs

Our multiple sclerosis research

Our researchers aim to decipher how multiple sclerosis occurs, and discover new treatments. To do this they are investigating:

  • How multiple sclerosis is triggered, and the factors that influence susceptibility.
  • Why the safeguards that prevent harmful immune responses fail in multiple sclerosis.
  • How harmful immune responses and inflammation can be turned off as a treatment for conditions including multiple sclerosis.

Our search for infectious triggers for multiple sclerosis is a collaborative project with:

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a debilitating inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. It is characterised by damage to the insulating layer surrounding nerve fibres.

People with MS show neurological symptoms including problems with:

  • Moving, such as muscle spasms and weakness
  • Seeing
  • Thinking and speaking

The symptoms of MS vary between people. Most people with MS experience short episodes of illness in between periods of good health. In some people, MS becomes steadily worse.

MS symptoms are thought to be caused by the breakdown of myelin, a mixture of proteins and lipids that surrounds nerves. Loss of myelin prevents nerves from functioning properly. Early in MS, damaged myelin can be repaired. Ongoing damage causes scarring around the nerves, impairing their function.

It is thought that myelin damage in MS is caused by the body’s own immune system. The trigger for this attack remains unknown. There is some evidence that MS may be triggered by a bacterial or viral infection in the brain. Our researchers are investigating this hypothesis.

MS affects more than 25,000 Australians, and more than 2.3 million people worldwide. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45 years. MS is the most common neurological disease affecting young adults. It is a highly disabling condition that impacts greatly on a person’s wellbeing and productivity.

MS Australia provides information and support for those affected by multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis risk factors

While it is suspected that MS is triggered by an infection, the identity of the infection is currently unknown. Known factors that increase a person’s susceptibility to developing MS include:

  • Inheriting susceptibility genes
  • Living further away from the equator
  • Being female
  • Being aged between 20 and 40 years

How is multiple sclerosis treated?

There is no cure for MS. Early treatment can slow the damage of nerves, and reduce the frequency of relapsing disease.

Treatments for MS reduce the damage caused by immune attack on nerves. These include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids, to reduce the severity of attacks.
  • Disease-modifying drugs that affect immune cell function.

Many people with MS also benefit from physiotherapy, exercise and medicines to relieve symptoms.


Dr Rory Bowden

Dr Rory Bowden photographed smiling at the camera
Genomics Laboratory Head and Centre Manager, WEHI Advanced Genomics Facility

Professor Guillaume Lessene

Professor Guillaume Lessene in a laboratory
Laboratory Head; Leader, New Medicines and Advanced Technologies Theme

Professor Gordon Smyth

Professor Gordon Smyth writing on a whiteboard
Joint Division Head

Professor Daniel Gray

Professor Daniel Gray
Joint Division Head
Super Content: 
Scientists looking at a vial in a laboratory

An institute team has developed a molecule that can halt inflammation and has shown promise in preventing the progression of multiple sclerosis.

Dr Daniel Gray at the microscope

Our discovery sheds light on how diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis develop.

Hand holding pipette

Our researchers have identified an immune protein that has the potential to treat, or even prevent, immune disorders including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.