Women's College Research Institute

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Molecular mechanism may explain why more women than men get MS

July 2012

Three times as many women as men develop multiple sclerosis, but scientists don’t understand why.

   Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially debilitating disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective sheath surrounding the nerves, breaking down communication between the brain and the rest of the body. Symptoms vary widely, but people with severe cases may lose the ability to walk or speak. There is no cure for multiple sclerosis, but treatment can modify the course of the disease and help manage symptoms.

Recently, researchers including Women’s College scientist and assistant professor of Immunology, Dr. Shannon Dunn identified a protein that governs sex-specific responses in human T cells, providing new insight into women’s increased risk of MS. The study, published in late May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reports that sex matters when it comes to cytokines, signaling molecules that regulate the immune system. According to the work, human and mouse T helper (Th) cells, also called CD4+ T cells, make different amounts of key cytokines, depending on whether they come from a female or a male. 

“With this insight, we believe that we are elucidating some of the biology of the sex difference,” says Dunn.

Dunn presented the manuscript at two international meetings in June – including Harvard’s workshop on sex differences in autoimmune disease, and at the fifth annual conference of the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies (FOCiS), in Vancouver. Dunn’s work is funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research and MS Society of Canada.

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