Researchers believe they may have found a link between a common food-borne bacterium and multiple sclerosis (MS). Scientists from Weill Cornell Medical College presented findings at a meeting of the American Society of Microbiology in Washington D.C. that may finally shed some light on what causes MS, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leads to loss of vision and even paralysis. The researchers believe a potential trigger of the disease could be epsilon toxin, which is a byproduct of a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens, one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States.
Around 2.3 million people worldwide are affected by MS, which has no known cure and is believed to be triggered by a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors. These new findings support mounting scientific evidence that epsilon toxin might just be one of these environmental factors.
Research shows that epsilon toxin attacks many of the same cells that are affected by MS, including the brain's myelin-producing cells (the cells responsible for creating the insulating sheath around neurons). It also goes after the retinal vascular and meningeal cells, both of which are affected by MS inflammation. Both epsilon toxin and MS can permeate the blood-brain barrier, which is meant to prevent toxins from moving from the bloodstream into the brain.
Epsilon toxin is only produced by certain strains of Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium commonly found on raw meat and poultry. The scientists conducting the study tested 37 samples of local foods to see how often the toxin cropped up, and found that 37.5 percent tested positive for Clostridium perfringens and 2.7 percent tested positive for the epsilon toxin gene.
The research, which has not yet been published, does not prove that epsilon toxin causes MS, nor does it prove the toxin can be transmitted to humans through food. However Jennifer Linden, the Weill Cornell scientist who presented the research, said in a statement that the findings were important because they could eventually lead to the elimination of the disease.
Linden says these findings are important, because if it can be confirmed that epsilon toxin is indeed a trigger of MS, development of a neutralizing antibody or vaccine directed against epsilon toxin might stop the progression of the disease or prevent it from even developing.